Cuttin' Heads: Lead Belly vs Nirvana

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When Nirvana appeared on MTV’s Unplugged back in 1993, the grunge band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, delivered a song that to their fans would have been not only fresh in their repertoire but also seemed to come from completely out of the left field. ‘My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,’ Cobain almost croons over a jagged acoustic guitar. ‘Tell me, where did you sleep last night?’ And the straying lover replies: ‘In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines… I would shiver the whole night through.’ It remains a mesmerisingly haunting moment more than 20 years on from the performance, Seattle grunge shading beautifully into Southern Gothic – through the medium of an old Lead Belly song. And its history is far longer and more complex than the viewers introduced to it that day would have realised.

Nirvana’s and Lead Belly’s are the most gripping and the best known versions of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, but the song is ancient. Sometimes known by that title, sometimes as Black Girl, or In The Pines, or The Longest Train, or Look Up, Look Down That Lonesome Road, it’s one of the oldest patches in the quilt of southern music. But that metaphor isn’t quite right, because a patch of cloth has fixed dimensions, and this song is a shape- shifter, a patch not of material but of colour, spreading across the map of the south, seeping into every hill and hollow, every backwood and bayou.

It has no fixed text to follow, just a handful of motifs, like a bunch of randomly gathered flowers, which the singer can select and arrange to his or her own satisfaction. Some versions begin, as Nirvana’s and Lead Belly’s do, with question and reply. The man suspects a rival – if she wasn’t in his bed, who was she sleeping with? – but the woman disclaims such mundane infidelity. She passed the night in a cold and sunless pine forest, and part of the enduring appeal of the song is that we never find out why.

What we do hear next in this version seems to come from somewhere else entirely. ‘My husband,’ sings Lead Belly, continuing to speak on behalf of the pine-loving (indeed, the pining) woman, ‘was a railroad man’ – until he had a ghastly accident, his head lying severed on the driving wheel, his body never found. Such were the occupational hazards of the early railroad days. The iron horse had thrown another rider to his grisly death, and perhaps the pines in the refrain were standing around an imagined grave. (Cobain messes the words up here, singing, ‘Her husband was a working man, just about a mile from here’ which renders the accident inexplicable.)

There was a time when practically everyone in the south who sang songs knew a version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?. After all, what could possibly be more familiar to them than the pinewoods, or railroads – or lovers behaving oddly? There had been recordings by country singers as early as the mid-20s, all of them a little different from each other, not all including the decapitation, but generally finding room for that lover’s plea: ‘Little girl, little girl, don’t tell me no lies…’

But sometimes it is twisted into a different question, as in the influential version by Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys: ‘Little girl, little girl, what have I done, that makes you treat me so? You cause me to weep, you cause me to moan, you cause me to leave my home.’ Unpredictable forest visitation is no longer the main issue here. Monroe has rewritten a gothic mystery as a “my wife doesn’t understand me” grievance.

Monroe’s In The Pines, recorded in 1941, also includes a motif not present in the Nirvana/Lead Belly text. It’s a kind of tall tale: ‘The longest train I ever saw went down that Georgia line – the engine passed at six o’clock and the cab passed by at nine.’ Mainer’s Mountaineers, a country string band hugely popular on radio and records in the 30s, spin an even wilder story. In their The Longest Train (1935), the engine has passed the six-mile post, but the cab hasn’t even left town. Such comic exaggeration has always appealed to rural singers and their audiences, and Mainer’s and Monroe’s were just two carriages in a long train of versions that featured it, extending to The Louvin Brothers in the 50s and thence into the standard bluegrass repertoire.

And to another rock manifestation of the theme, In The Pines as performed by the Grateful Dead in a 1966 Fillmore concert (since released on retrospective compilations). Bluegrass enthusiast though he was, Jerry Garcia did not reproduce the version ratified by Bill Monroe but reintroduced the headless engineer, and reset the tune with an organ figure recalling Alan Price’s in The Animals’ House Of The Rising Sun – which, when you think about it, is at least a melodic cousin of our song.

There are more faces to this prism. Though most versions contain some or all of the basic motifs – the pines, the long train, the decapitation – some have tried to drive out the shadows and lighten the mood a little, by borrowing commonplace verses from other old southern pieces, like ‘where did you get that pretty red dress?’ or ‘who’s gonna shoe your pretty little feet?’ Since our song has no chronological narrative, and not much thematic coherence, the singer is free to reorder the verses, or pull in new ones from similar songs.

For Lead Belly, you feel, this is some kind of true story.

For an audience, these are largely technical matters. What the listener responds to, as much as the arresting images of tree and train and trauma, is the long, slow cadences of the melody. No one does this song fast or snappy. Lead Belly’s naturally has the insistent throb of his 12-string guitar, but his vocal line arches and dips gracefully, like a rhythmic field holler. Oddly, given how old and widespread a song it is, Lead Belly seems to have come by it relatively late. Although he was recorded incessantly by John and Alan Lomax for the Library Of Congress’s Archive Of Folk Song from 1935 onwards, logging almost 250 sides, he didn’t present Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – or Black Girl, as it was sometimes titled – to a microphone until 1944, in a studio recording for the small Musicraft label, and it never became a staple of his repertoire.

It was taken up, though, by one of his associates on the New York folk scene of the late 40s, the singer and guitarist Josh White. An altogether more sophisticated musician than Lead Belly, White gave Black Gal (as his was titled) a characteristically fluent guitar setting on his American recording of the piece, but he first attempted it while he was on tour in England in 1951, when he was awarded a Decca studio packed with a string orchestra and the vocal group The Stargazers. (Mature readers may recall this troupe’s Radio Luxembourg programmes and their jaunty signature jingle: “The Stargazers are ON THE AIR!”)

For an audience, these are largely technical matters. What the listener responds to, as much as the arresting images of tree and train and trauma, is the long, slow cadences of the melody. No one does this song fast or snappy. Lead Belly’s naturally has the insistent throb of his 12-string guitar, but his vocal line arches and dips gracefully, like a rhythmic field holler. Oddly, given how old and widespread a song it is, Lead Belly seems to have come by it relatively late. Although he was recorded incessantly by John and Alan Lomax for the Library Of Congress’s Archive Of Folk Song from 1935 onwards, logging almost 250 sides, he didn’t present Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – or Black Girl, as it was sometimes titled – to a microphone until 1944, in a studio recording for the small Musicraft label, and it never became a staple of his repertoire.

It was taken up, though, by one of his associates on the New York folk scene of the late 40s, the singer and guitarist Josh White. An altogether more sophisticated musician than Lead Belly, White gave Black Gal (as his was titled) a characteristically fluent guitar setting on his American recording of the piece, but he first attempted it while he was on tour in England in 1951, when he was awarded a Decca studio packed with a string orchestra and the vocal group The Stargazers. (Mature readers may recall this troupe’s Radio Luxembourg programmes and their jaunty signature jingle: “The Stargazers are ON THE AIR!”)

Unsurprisingly, this was not the version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? that finally found its way to Kurt Cobain. He was introduced to it by a fellow Seattle musician, Mark Lanegan, who played him Lead Belly’s 1944 recording and other Lead Belly numbers from his collection. The two men, with some colleagues, even recorded an album’s worth of Lead Belly songs.

It was never issued, but from those sessions Where Did You Sleep Last Night? made it on to Lanegan’s 1990 album The Winding Sheet. This, in turn, provided a template for Cobain’s Unplugged recording three years later, even down to the sudden shift, about two thirds of the way through the song, from quiet storytelling to impassioned screaming. It’s a dramatic reading, but Lead Belly’s is something more, a telling. For him, you feel, this is not historical drama, but some kind of true story. There really was that pinewoods girl; that railroader really did lose his head. Lead Belly’s version is grounded in a world that Cobain couldn’t enter.

But what does it all mean? The mystery remains. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is a window through which we see whatever seizes our imagination.

**Easily Lead
**Huddie Ledbetter – or Lead Belly as he was known – has been dead for more than 65 years now, but he still towers over America’s musicians as an influence, source and model. The vast collection of the songs he recorded in the 30s and 40s is unequalled for variety anywhere in southern music, black or white. He had dance songs and work songs, story songs and sacred songs, cowboy songs and topical songs, covers of songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Jimmie Rodgers… The list went on and on.

His old minstrel show piece Goodnight, Irene must surely be the only song in the world that has been covered by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Tom Waits and Bryan Ferry. Other avowed devotees of the Lead Belly legacy range from the likes of Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton to some less obvious names: Led Zeppelin, Nick Cave, The White Stripes. The dude, you could say, abides.