In the Pines

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For other uses, see In the Pines (disambiguation).
"In the Pines"
Published 1917
Writer(s) Traditional

"In the Pines", also known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" and "Black Girl", is a traditional American folk song which dates back to at least the 1870s,[citation needed] and is believed to be Southern Appalachian in origin.[citation needed] The identity of the song's author is unknown, but it has been recorded by many artists in numerous genres. Traditionally, it is most often associated with the American folk and blues musician Lead Belly, who recorded several versions in the 1940s, as well as the American bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, who helped popularize the song (in a different variant, featuring lyrics about a train) among bluegrass and country audiences with his versions recorded in the 1940s and 1950s.

The song, performed by The Four Pennies, reached the UK top twenty in 1964. A live rendering by the American alternative rock band Nirvana, which reinterpreted Lead Belly's version and was recorded during their MTV Unplugged performance in 1993, helped introduce the song to a new generation.

Early history[edit]

Like numerous other folk songs, "In the Pines" was passed on from one generation and locale to the next by word of mouth. The first printed version of the song, compiled by Cecil Sharp, appeared in 1917, and comprised just four lines and a melody. The lines are:

Black girl, black girl, don't lie to me
Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines
And shivered when the cold wind blows

In 1925, a version of the song was recorded onto phonograph cylinder by a folk collector. This was the first documentation of "The Longest Train" variant of the song, which includes a verse about "The longest train I ever saw". This verse probably began as a separate song that later merged into "In the Pines". Lyrics in some versions about "Joe Brown's coal mine" and "the Georgia line" may refer to Joseph E. Brown, a former Governor of Georgia, who famously leased convicts to operate coal mines in the 1870s. While early renditions which mention the head in the "driver's wheel" make clear that the decapitation was caused by the train, some later versions would omit the reference to the train and reattribute the cause. As music historian Norm Cohen pointed out in his 1981 book, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, the song came to consist of three frequent elements: a chorus about "in the pines", a verse about "the longest train" and a verse about a decapitation, but not all elements are present in all versions.[1][2]

Starting in 1926, commercial recordings of the song were made by various folk and bluegrass bands. In her 1970 Ph.D. dissertation, Judith McCulloh (1935-2014) found 160 permutations of the song.[3] As well as rearrangement of the three frequent elements, the person who goes into the pines, or who is decapitated, is described as a man, woman, adolescent, husband, wife, or parent, while the pines can be seen as representing sexuality, death, or loneliness. The train is described as killing a loved one, as taking one's beloved away, or as leaving an itinerant worker far from home.[1]

In variants in which the song describes a confrontation, the person being challenged is always a woman. The folk version by the Kossoy Sisters asks, "Little girl, little girl, where'd you stay last night? Not even your mother knows." The reply to the question, "Where did you get that dress/ And those shoes that are so fine?" from one version is, "From a man in the mines/Who sleeps in the pines."[1] The theme of a woman being caught doing something she should not is thus also common to many variants. One variant, performed in the early twentieth century by the Ellison clan (Ora Ellison, deceased) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, tells of a young Georgia girl who flees to the pines after being raped. Her rapist, a male soldier, is later beheaded by the train.

Some versions of the song also reference the Great Depression, with the "black girl" being a hobo on the move from the police, who witnesses the murder of her father while train-jumping. She hides from this by sleeping in the pines, in the cold.

Influential versions[edit]

Bill Monroe[edit]

Bill Monroe's 1941 and 1952 recordings, both under the title "In the Pines", were highly influential on later bluegrass and country versions. Recorded with his Bluegrass Boys and featuring fiddles and yodelling, they represent the "longest train" variant of the song, and omit any reference to a decapitation. However, as Eric Weisbard writes in a 1994 article in The New York Times, "...the enigmatic train is almost as frightening, suggesting an eternal passage: 'I asked my captain for the time of day/He said he throwed his watch away.'"[1]

Lead Belly[edit]

Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, recorded over half-a-dozen versions between 1944 and 1948, most often under the title, "Black Girl" or "Black Gal". His first rendition, for Musicraft Records in New York City in February 1944, is arguably his most familiar. Listed as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", this version appears on a number of Lead Belly "best-of" compilations, such as Absolutely the Best (2000).

Another familiar version was recorded for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, in New York City. Listed as "Black Girl" or "In the Pines", this version appears on compilations such as Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Lead Belly Legacy Vol. 1 (1996), and The Definitive Lead Belly (2008).

Lead Belly is often said to be the author of the song, e.g. by Nirvana on their MTV Unplugged album in 1994. However, Lead Belly didn't write the song, but reinterpreted it, as did other musicians before and after him. According to the American folklorist Alan Lomax, Lead Belly learned the song from someone's interpretation of the 1917 version compiled by Cecil Sharp, and by the 1925 phonograph recording.[1]

Cajun versions[edit]

"In the Pines", converted into the Cajun French language and sung under the titles "Pine Grove Blues" or "Ma Negresse", became one of the landmark songs of Cajun music. The song is most associated with Nathan Abshire, the Louisiana Cajun accordion player, for whom "Pine Grove Blues" was his biggest hit. His melody is a hard-driving blues, but the lyrics, when translated to English, are the familiar "Hey, my girl, where did you sleep last night?" The Cajun French word "negresse" and the masculine counterpart "negre" are terms of endearment without regard to race.[citation needed] He recorded it at least three times, from the 1940s onward. Since then, Abshire's version has been covered by a wide variety of Cajun and zydeco musicians, including the Pine Leaf Boys, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Beau Jocque, and Cedric Watson.

The Four Pennies[edit]

The Four Pennies recorded and released the song as "Black Girl" in October 1964. Their version reached No. 20 in the UK,[4] and achieved commercial success in the US as well.[5]

Mark Lanegan/Nirvana[edit]

"Where Did You Sleep Last Night"
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night" cover
Song by Nirvana from the album MTV Unplugged in New York
Released 1 November 1994
Recorded November 18, 1993 at Sony Music Studios in New York City
Length 5.08
Label DGC Records
Writer(s) Lead Belly
Producer(s) Alex Coletti, Scott Litt, Nirvana
MTV Unplugged in New York track listing

Nirvana occasionally performed the song during the early 1990s. Singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain was introduced to the song by fellow Seattle musician Mark Lanegan, and played guitar on a version on Lanegan's 1990 album, The Winding Sheet. Like Lanegan, Cobain usually screamed its final verse.

It is likely that Cobain referenced Lead Belly's 1944 Musicraft version for his interpretation of the song; this is the version Lanegan owned an original 78 rpm of,[1] and the one Cobain's version most closely resembles, in lyrics, form and title. In a 2009 MTV article, Kurt Loder remembers discussing the song's title with Cobain, with Cobain insisting, "But the Leadbelly version is called 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night,'" and Loder preferring the "In the Pines" title used by Bill Monroe (as well as Lead Belly).[6]

Cobain earned critical acclaim for his acoustic performance of the song during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged appearance in 1993. Canadian musician Neil Young described Cobain's vocals during the final screamed verse as "Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable."[7] This version was originally sanctioned to be released as a b-side to the band's "Pennyroyal Tea" single in 1994, but the single was cancelled following Cobain's death in April 1994. It was posthumously released on the band's MTV Unplugged in New York album in November 1994, and as a promotional single from the album.[8] In 2002 the song featured as a bonus track on Nirvana's "best of" compilation album Nirvana. A solo Cobain home demo, recorded in 1990, appears on the band's 2004 rarities box set, With the Lights Out.

Nirvana's chart positions
Chart (1995) Position
French Airplay Chart[9] 62

Other versions[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

In literature[edit]

In television[edit]

  • A version of the song is used in the trailer for American Gods.
  • The song becomes an important plot point in the fourth series of Ripper Street.

In video games[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Weisbard, Eric (November 13, 1994). "A Simple Song That Lives Beyond Time". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ Cohen, Norm (2000). Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (2 ed.). p. 459. ISBN 978-0-252-06881-2. 
  3. ^ McCulloh, Judith Marie (1970), In the Pines: The Melodic-Textual Identity of an American Lyric Folksong Cluster (Ph.D. dissertation, Folklore), Indiana University 
  4. ^ Seida, Linda. "The Four Pennies – Music Biography, Credits and Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  5. ^ "The Four Pennies – Discover music, videos, concerts, stats, & pictures at". March 22, 2012. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  6. ^ Kurt Loder (April 8, 2009). "Nirvana's Kurt Cobain: Still Missed". Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Nirvana's Tense, Brilliant Unplugged in New York, 20 Years Later". The Atlantic. December 12, 2013. Retrieved October 27, 2015. 
  8. ^ Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night Retrieved March 1, 2014.
  9. ^ "InfoDisc : Accès direct à ces Artistes (The user must select "Nirvana" from the dropdown list)". Retrieved October 14, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Laura Gibson - La Grande b/w In the Pines". Discogs. 
  11. ^ Horáková, Hana (August 15, 2010). "Cesta Natálie Kocáb". VašeLiteratura (in Czech). VašeLiteratura. Retrieved February 9, 2012. 
  12. ^ /. "Telltale Games". Retrieved October 27, 2015. 

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