Morning Music: In the Pines

MTV Unplugged in New York“In the Pines” is a folk song that dates back at least a century. It was first noted in print in 1917, and was first recorded by an ethnomusicologist in 1925 where it was sung by a field hand. From that point on, it became quite popular among folk singers. But the first iconic recording of the song was by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in 1941. But in 1944, Lead Belly recorded his own version that — at least until the 1990s — was the version that most people knew.

Lead Belly’s recording hearkened back to the much earlier version. And it is much darker. My take on the story is that a young woman is fleeing for her life after her husband was murdered in a particularly gruesome way. Now, the implication could be simply that this was a work related accident. But then, why is she hiding out? If I wanted to stretch it, I could argue that her husband was killed working on the train, but she had been stepping out on him and the singer is shaming her for this fact. But I don’t accept that telling. I understand that there are versions that use this story line, but I’m curious about the Lead Belly version.

Anyway, Mark Lanegan introduced Kurt Cobain to one of Lead Belly’s versions of the song. And so Nirvana performed the song. This version from MTV Unplugged in New York is probably the best known version of the song now. And since I don’t have any video footage of Lead Belly doing the song, here is Kurt and the boys:

2 thoughts on “Morning Music: In the Pines

  1. The Leadbelly Library of Congress recordings are a national treasure; Alan Lomax is a bonafide American hero, as are the amazing artists he recorded.

    That version of “Sleep” hits me pretty hard. I was at the right age and lived in the right part of the country so I took Cobain’s agonizing over mainstream success pretty personally; no doubt people taking his music way too personally was one of the things spurring Cobain’s depression. “Kurt and the boys” were essentially playing a sloppier version of punk and having a good time doing so. Their music wasn’t anywhere near as political as the Clash or even the Pogues. It felt political, though; the early 90’s where when we were learning that the Democratic party had sold us out, and pop culture was just a means of dispensing soma. Nirvana’s music meant way more than Nirvana intended it to mean, because nothing else at the time expressed any anguish.

    It’s a nice cover. I read a blues enthusiast saying “this is how white guys should do blues” and I think that’s correct. It suggests a direction Cobain could have gone in if he hadn’t been killed by our celebrity worship (which I was part of) and our drug laws.

    • I hardly knew they they existed until well after Cobain’s death. I was in graduate school. And I was obsessing over American Music Club anyway. They are rather similar bands: definitely in the punk tradition, but in a much more depressing way. It’s the perfect music for today because all hope is lost. It would doubtless have been better for Cobain if he hadn’t been quite so successful. That certainly has helped Mark Eitzel. But he also had a sense of humor about his despair that I never heard in Cobain.

      That same concert also has probably the best performance ever of “The Man Who Sold The World.” It’s Cobain’s voice. It isn’t hard to see how he would kill himself just a year later.

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