“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: