American folk music retains a rich yet mysterious history. So many songs get passed down from generation to generation that plenty of them become lyrical John Does. It’s slightly creepy then – especially in our wealthy age of endless information online – that certain things go untitled, unfound, and unclaimed. One such track is “In the Pines”, also known as “Black Girl” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”.
Said to be Southern Appalachian in origin, and dating back to the 1870’s, “In the Pine” remains to this day a chilling, minimalistic crooner. Its simplicity adds to this effect, especially its jarring lyrics. Published in 1917 by Cecil Sharp, the earliest printed version of the song contained only four lines:
Black girl, black girl, don’t lie to me
Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines
And shivered when the cold wind blows”
The earliest known recording surfaced in 1925 on a phonograph cylinder, which eventually ignited a long series of changes to the song. Over time, the four lines evolved into an assortment of stories, some involving “the longest train”, others describing “Joe Brown’s coal mine”, and many including a decapitated head found in a “driver’s wheel”. By far the most popular recording of the song is Huddie Ledbetter’s, aka Lead Belly, who went on to record multiple versions. His own cut features a variation of Sharp’s, including the mention of the decapitation:
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.”
Naturally, generations today recall this song as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, popularized by Nirvana during their MTV Unplugged performance in 1994. This particular set would be one of the band’s last televised recordings, having debuted only a few months before frontman Kurt Cobain would commit suicide. Only adding to the spookiness, their rendition of “In the Pines” closed the set, and if you watch the video below – specifically at 4:47 – you’ll witness a hair-raising moment where Cobain grasps for breath before finishing it off. To date, it stands as one of the most powerfully charged performances in modern rock ‘n’ roll history.
Again, it all goes back to the fact that nobody knows who the hell wrote this song. Spooky, huh?
Leadbelly – “In the Pines”
Nirvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”