Appalachia Ghosts - Haints - Spooky Music

In the Pines

In the pines traditional murder ballad from appalachia

The Pressley Girls first learned the song In the Pines back in 2013. They’ve been doing the song ever since. Chatter and Chitter do the song in the same arrangement as The Louvin Brothers -including imitating the mournful sound of the wind.

The song is sometimes called Where did You Sleep last Night and is considered to be a murder ballad. In a 1994 the New York Times published an article about the song titled POP MUSIC; A Simple Song That Lives Beyond Time written by Eric Weisbard.

Weisbard wrote the article primarily to point out the oddity of Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana fame, recording the song as well as to highlight the longevity of the song itself. Here’s an interesting excerpt from the article:

“Researching the song for a 1970 dissertation, Judith McCulloh found 160 different versions, a finding that raises the question: Why does a song like “In the Pines” endure and permutate so insistently? The answer may be that its essence is not a specific story or even a musical style but the kind of intensely dark emotion that, as is the case with much in American music, survives longer in popular memory than does treacly sentiment.

The song probably has its origins in the Southern Appalachians, where it is still passed on as part of an oral tradition. The mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb says a college friend from Georgia taught her a verse that she used as a chapter heading in her 1992 novel, “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.” As she demonstrated in a telephone conversation, she can also sing a very different “Mitchell County, N.C.” version that includes a reference to the local Clenchfield railroad line.

Dolly Parton, who performs a version on her recent album “Heartsongs” says: “The song has been handed down through many generations of my family. I don’t ever remember not hearing it and not singing it. Any time there were more than three or four songs to be sung, ‘In the Pines’ was one of them. It’s easy to play, easy to sing, great harmonies and very emotional. The perfect song for simple people.”

In the 1981 book “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong,” the music historian Norm Cohen notes that “In the Pines” has three frequent elements, not all of which always appear. There is the chorus “in the pines,” a stanza about “the longest train I ever saw” and another verse in which someone is decapitated by a Train.

“The longest train” section probably began as a separate song, which merged with “In the Pines”; references in some renditions to “Joe Brown’s coal mine” and “the Georgia line” may date its origins to Joseph Emerson Brown, a former Georgia governor, who operated coal mines in the 1870’s. The earliest printed version was four lines and a melody compiled by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky in 1917. Another variant, mentioning the train accident, was recorded in 1925 by a folk collector onto cylinder, a precursor of the phonograph. The next year, commercial hillbilly recordings of “In the Pines” and “The Longest Train” began appearing.

How did Kurt Cobain discover “In the Pines”? Long before Nirvana’s rise, he and Mark Lanegan, leader of the Seattle rock group Screaming Trees, formed a friendship around a mutual love of Leadbelly. Mr. Lanegan owned a copy of the original Musicraft 78 rpm of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that Leadbelly recorded in 1944. “My father gave me the record when I was a kid,” Mr. Lanegan says. “He was a schoolteacher, and he found in the attic of an old school a box of blues records.” Mr. Lanegan and Mr. Cobain recorded an EP of Leadbelly tunes, but only “Where Did You Sleep” was released on Mr. Lanegan’s 1990 album, “The Winding Sheet,” with Mr. Cobain playing guitar.

Although Leadbelly is credited with authorship of “Where Did You Sleep” on “The Winding Sheet” and Nirvana’s “Unplugged in New York,” his own discovery of the song was almost as secondhand as that of the Seattle musicians. Alan Lomax, the folk music archivist and promoter, reported to Ms. McCulloh that Leadbelly learned parts of the song from someone who had taken it from the 1917 Sharp version and other parts from the 1925 cylinder recording.

For all its complicated history, the meaning of “In the Pines” may be even more blurry, a vast continuum of different varieties of misery and suffering. “This unique, moody, blues-style song from the Southern mountain country is like a bottomless treasure box of folk-song elements,” wrote James Leisy in his 1966 book “The Folk Song Abecedary.” “The deeper you dig, the more you find.”

The basic elements of the song remain similar from version to version, but the context can be altered with a few words. It may be a husband, a wife or even a parent whose head is “found in the driver’s wheel” and whose “body has never been found.” Men, women and sometimes confused adolescents flee into the sordid pines, which serve as a metaphor for everything from sex to loneliness and death. The “longest” train can kill or give one’s love the means to run away or leave an itinerant worker stranded far from his home.

In the bluegrass and country versions popularized by Mr. Monroe, the song’s eerie qualities are rooted in the genre’s “high lonesome” sound, with fiddles and yodeling harmonies used to evoke the cold wind blowing. Lyrics about beheading drop out, but 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.”

In other versions, the focus is clearly, as the novelist Ms. McCrumb notes, on a confrontation: “There’s a woman doing something not socially acceptable, and she’s been caught at it.” In one case, a husband demands: “Don’t lie to me; where did you sleep last night?” In their traditional interpretation, the Kossoy Sisters begin: “Little girl, little girl, where’d you stay last night? Not even your mother knows.” Despite all the variations of “In the Pines,” these questions are almost never asked of a man. The woman may also be asked, “Where did you get that dress, and those shoes that are so fine?” and the answer is “from a man in the mines, who sleeps in the pines.”

I found the article fascinating because even though I’ve heard the song my entire life, I’ve rarely heard the verses that talk about asking the Captain for the time of day and I’ve never heard the line about the head and the driver’s wheel. McCulloh can add one more version to the 160 that her research turned up-The Pressley Girls version.

Lots of folks have a problem with changing the pronouns in a song to better fit their own gender. Chatter and Chitter see things differently. They say they need to feel like the song is about them for it to be part of their creative outlet so they always change the pronouns. In the case of the song In the Pines they’re singing about a boy instead of a girl.

I hope you enjoyed the video! To hear Leadbelly’s version of the song Where did You Sleep Last Night go here.



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  • Reply
    October 23, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    I so appreciate the history of the tune brought out in the article. I like the mournful Pressley Girl version, as well as the haunting one by Leadbelly. Definitely an enduring bit of folklore.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    I really like Chitter and Chatter’s version. I guess the reason I never heard Leadbelly’s song is that he died one year after I was born. …Ken
    PS: I listen to your Playlist alot and “In the Pines” is #3. I also like #10 by Paul and Pap,
    “Gathering Flowers from the Hillside”. Sometimes I just let the singing go on and on.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 23, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    I just can’t get into the mournful nature of the song. When I was young and living up on Wiggins Creek, “The Pines” was a few acres of south facing woodland where almost all the trees were pines. During the winter when the angle of the sun is low, its rays struck the hillside at a 90° angle at its zenith. I remember climbing up the mountainside when the temperature was well below freezing. I would make a bed of pine needles in a sunny spot and lay down for a while. The pine needles acted as insulation from the frozen ground. Low growing vegetation acted as a buffer against the cold winter winds. All this was conducive to a nap. The replenishment of vitamin D was a beneficial side effect.
    I even went so far as to compose a counter to “In the Pines”
    ♫ In the pines, in the pines
    where the sun always shines
    not a shiver tho the cold winds blow. ♪
    There was more but I have forgotten it.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Fascinating the history on this familiar song. I used to sing it as a teen, but soon realized I wasn’t very good at singing. It has such a sad mournful sound, and a drive through Georgia always reminded me of this song. It always seemed to remind me of Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe even though not sure I ever heard them sing this old favorite.
    As usual, those Pressley Girls do an excellent job on all tunes. Thank you Chitter and Chatter for helping to keep those songs going. Perhaps, it will inspire other young folks to do the same.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    October 23, 2016 at 10:11 am

    This is one of my favorite songs. When I first met my wife, she was familiar only with the Kurt Cobain version. It gave us something substantial to talk about that first awkward week of courting.
    I also like it’s “cousin” song Lonesome Road that shares the lines about the longest train and that “the only one I ever loved was on that train and she’s gone.” It also has that haunting verse, for me, that “the darkest night I ever saw was the night I left my home.”
    So true.
    I’m fascinated by all the different versions of songs and that songs will share verses. I tend to think, and here is where spending time with the Navajo has influenced me, that all these songs are puzzle pieces to some larger truth. You follow all these clues and shadowy trails to learn about yourself in the world.
    We have a great tradition in music and stories. Too bad the outside is only concerned with the “hillbilly elegy” and Larry the Cable Guy depictions.
    This blog is often my reality check.
    Ps: my daughter Alex approves of the Pressley Girls version and impressed her Pap and Memaw by singing her version this morning.

  • Reply
    Sheila Bergeron
    October 23, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Very interesting today, I’ve always heard the Louvin Brothers as I grew up listening to them. Then I heard of Kurt’s version when my twins were teens. I never heard of Leadbelly’s before today…I like his version too. Y’all be blessed !

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 23, 2016 at 8:55 am

    My Dad, when he was especially well, would sing the chorus of “In the Pines” but that was all I ever heard of it. To this day, I’m likely to sing it to at odd times and places. I relate even to that little piece because of him but also because, as a forester, I have had much to do with each of the seven species of pines that are native to the state of Georgia. As a side note in that regard, the wind in the tops of longleaf pine has a particular ‘soughing’ sound unlike any of the other six pines. It has the peculiar property of being whatever sound fits your mood at the time. It would make a great ‘white noise’ tape.
    I agree with the girls, personalize by all means. I expect that is the reason there are 160+ versions. I imagine different local events were integrated into a prior version.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 23, 2016 at 7:40 am

    The history is fascinating. It’s as if the song has a life of it’s own and it evolves as it will, no matter what the origin intended. The girls did a real good job, but then they always do!

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