In the Pines

There are few songs that well and truly stand the test of time. In the Pines is also known as Black Girl, or perhaps is best known as Where Did You Sleep Last Night made famous by Nirvana. But its origins date back much further. 

Going back to at least the 1870s the song is thought to have originated in the deep south, or specifically the southern Appalachian Mountains. Since that time the song has been passed on through generations as an oral tradition. It seems that the lyrics have changed a number of times, perhaps in a way similar to Chinese whispers, but throughout the different versions that have been produced through time, its general meaning has remained the same. 

The first known commercial version of the song was recorded by Dock Walsh in 1926, and since then numerous artists (a full list can be found on Wikipedia) have recorded different versions of the songs. In fact, an article in the New York Times from 1994 reports that Judith McCulloh, a student who researched the song for her dissertation in 1970, found a total of 160 different versions of the song. The better known artists to have recorded them have been Lead Belly, Nirvana, and Dolly Parton. 

All versions of the song refer to a murdered man, girl, or woman (frequently the person is described to have been decapitated, and the body never found), and the pines, where the sun doesn’t shine and the wind blows cold. The pines themselves depict a lonely and hopeless place, where a girl has been forced to go due to unfortunate circumstances. 

There’s a tragic, eerie quality to the song, which feels more profound when thinking back to its roots and origins. That the author of the song is unknown imbues ‘In the Pines’ with a sense of mystery, and adds to its haunting nature. 

An interesting article about the song in the New York Times (entitled A Simple Song That Lives Beyond Time) said something that particularly resonated with me: 

“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 music 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 has certainly endured, and continues to do so. When speaking of the song, Dolly Parton says that the song was passed down through many generations of her family. “I don’t ever remember not hearing it and not singing it,” she says.

Yet oral traditions are dying out. The way in which we pass on stories to our children is changing. Stories and songs passed down by parents and grandparents to younger generations was traditionally an oral history, sung or spoken. Stories were then succeeded by literature in the form of books, and then by TV and movies. Oral tradition was carried on for longer in songs, before it was succeeded by records, cassette tapes, CDs, and now in an even less tangible, digital form on iPods, laptops and such. 

But In the Pines is still around today, and I find there is something quite magical about that. Something has struck a chord in popular culture that has allowed this old song to stand the test of time. Perhaps it’s that ‘dark emotion’; the simple yet effective melody that, when combined with the tragic lyrics, carries a real sense sadness and hopelessness. When you listen to it, no matter who it is sung by, you’re still able to feel that enduring emotion, and to catch a glimpse of another place and time long ago, and we’re able to relate that place and time even today.

Here’s Lead Belly’s version:

Black girl, black girl, don’t lie to me.
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shine.
I shivered the whole night through. 

Black girl, black girl, where will you go?
I’m going where the cold wind blows.
In the pines, in the pines,
Where the sun never shine.
I’ll shiver the whole night through. 

(Chorus)

My husband was a railroad man,
Killed a mile and a half from here.
His head was found in a drivers wheel
And his body hasn’t never been found.

Black girl, black girl, where will you go?
I’m going where the cold wind blows. 
You caused me to weep and you caused me to mourn
You caused me to leave my home.