A folk song is a living organism. They are continually and constantly adapted and adjusted to fit new circumstances and environments. A few scant lines can grow over the years to become a rich fully developed narrative, incorporating specific facts and people from the contemporaries that alter it. Over time, these facts can disintegrate, losing meaning or relevance, so the song might be remolded anew – trimmed of verses, stripped back to basics, or combined with other narratives to create something wholly new. No one owns a folk song and that’s the most wonderful part about this whole thing. Like the flora and fauna around us, folk songs are for all to admire, revel in, and most importantly, interpret.
One song that has grown in meaning and length around the singers that have taken it up is “In The Pines.” Since its origination, sometime in the 1870s and probably somewhere in the Southern Appalachian region, the song has been transplanted from genre to genre, adapted, evolved, and changed to suit the singer’s interpretation. Also known as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and “Black Girl,” the history of “In The Pines” is as thick and layered as the pine tree’s bark. In a New York Times article from 1994, the author cites that a dissertation on the song found as many as 160 different versions. He continues on, positing the question: “Why does a song like ‘In The Pines’ endure and permutate so insistently?” In asking this question, I think we get close to the roots of what makes folk music important and enduring. It has to do with universality and accessibility; language may change, narrative elements may fall off, but emotion, grit, sweat and blood don’t wash away so easy. It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” “In The Pines” has been viewed in many different ways, but in each case, the mood is intensely dark, a place where “the sun never shines.”
“In The Pines” written and recorded history begins in 1917 when Cecil Sharp, a folklorist and song collector, printed the song as a verse and a melody,
“Black girl, black girl, don’t lie to me,
Where did you sleep last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines,
and shivered when the cold wind blows.”
It’s amazing that from these four lines, the song has taken on such varied meanings. Different versions include people fleeing implied seamy pasts into the equally seamy pines, which can be symbolic for crimes, sexual debasement, and, of course, death. In many versions, a “long train” factors into the story, acting in some cases as a stand-in for Death and in others a means of escape. In even more versions, there are traces of prostitution, existential questions, and brutally violent events (involving decapitation by said train). The narrative may change, but the feeling remains as cold, dark, and lonesome as when Cecil Sharp wrote down those four lines.
The most influential recording of “In The Pines” is associated with Lead Belly, recorded in 1944. Musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Link Wray, Odetta, Bill Callahan, Dee Dee Ramone, Nirvana, and countless others have tackled the song, imbuing it with new meaning each time. We’ll hear a few renditions tonight on Folkadelphia Radio.
Also during this episode, we’ll premiere a session from the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, recorded at the end of last year. The two were married in 1999 and have been performing together since 2000. In 2013, they released Wassaic Way, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, an album that draws on the two’s rich musical past and pushes their Americana rock sound in fun, new directions.