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Posts Tagged ‘cecil james’

I think Nirvana was one of the most overrated bands ever. While I can’t deny the catchy harmonies that drove their songs into the minds of a million flannel-clad minions, I can safely say that they weren’t even close to being one of best bands of the Nineties. Hell, they weren’t even the forefathers of Grunge. Redd Kross, along with Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band were the overlords of the Seattle Sound with Mudhoney and Green River as its rightful knights in rusty armour. But like I said, they did conceptualize good rhythms for their music. And there’s no stronger evidence of this than their widely-salivated 1993 album “Unplugged In New York”. The real gem of that album, I felt, was “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – at first glance, a seemingly distraught lover’s lament. Cobain’s patented sandpaper vocals screech out the first few lines with repressed angst, “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?” and then he goes on, as the lyrics slowly paint a picture of one of those creepy Southern backwoods’ stories.

Until a decade ago, I didn’t know that this was a cover song. Apparently, this song has its roots dating back to as early as 1870s. Originally titled as “In The Pines”, this haunting folk piece is “believed to be Southern Appalachian in origin” and its author nothing but a daunting mystery. In 1917, folk revivalist Cecil James Sharp was credited with the first printed version of the song; by then, it was titled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. Early 1920s witnessed a curious music enthusiast recording a version of this song onto a phonograph cylinder and interestingly enough, the lyrics were twisted and turned a bit to include a stanza about a decapitation and a reference about “the longest train”.

In fact, American folklore author Judith McCulloh (in a dissertation she wrote in 1970) claimed that there were nearly 160 permutations of the song. The common thread that runs through most of its incarnations was that lyrics always spoke of a woman being confronted. In some cases, we get the impression that the woman was “caught doing something wrong” and in others, it seems that she is being unfairly looked at as being guilty. Ora Ellison’s version of the song during the dawn of the twentieth century is probably the darkest, as it tells a tale of an African-American girl from Georgia getting raped by a male soldier, who later is decapitated.

Popularly known as Leadbelly, folk and blues guru William Ledbetter recorded many brilliant variants of this song between 1944 and 1948, which by then was titled “Black Girl (In The Pines)”. It sounds like one of those traditional blues tracks played during the Depression era…sort of like Ralph Stanley at a bluegrass concert. British singer/actress Marianne Faithful’s 1965 version was just as eerie with a dose of sweetness thrown in for good measure.

My favourite version of this legendary folk number is the one sung by Screaming Trees’ vocalist Mark Lanegan. His whiskey-soaked, nicotine-drenched vocals do justice to the song’s gritty roots. And oh, Cobain makes a smart move by restricting his vocals to the chorus section. Probably the best cover of a traditional song ever….yeah, even better than Pink Floyd psychedelic, spaced-out jamming on “House Of The Rising Sun”.

Download

Leadbelly – Black Girl (In The Pines)

Marianne Faithful – Black Girl

Mark Lanegan – Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Buy

Leadbelly’s Legacy Collection

Marianne Faithful’s Broken English

Mark Lanegan’s Whiskey For The Holy Ghost

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