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.