By Logan Guthrie-Silbert
In November of 1983 Nirvana closed out their MTV Unplugged performance with the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” The lyrics are dark- “his head was found in a driving wheel/but his body was never found” and Cobain’s singing is tender and heavy. In the last line of the song the music stops and he sounds emotional, like he’s struggling to get any sound to come out. Then, for the last word, the music comes back and he powers through.
A few months later Cobain died and that song, the last recording of him, played on repeat.
Nirvana was officially covering Lead Belly, who’s versions of that song include “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Black Girl (In the Pines).” Lead Belly was a folk and blues musician who lived between the late 1800s and the mid 1900s. He grew up in Louisiana and traveled throughout the South, learning songs through oral tradition. He was imprisoned twice, for murder and attempted murder respectively, before being “discovered” by folk music archivists who released his music, leading to a career of performing and recording in New York City.
However “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” wasn’t written by Lead Belly. Dolly Parton herself said of it, “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.” Its origins are likely with black communities living near the southern Appalachian mountains during the late 1800s. Some early versions reference “Joe Brown’s coal mine,” referring to a Georgia governor from around that time.
In 1970, researcher Judith Mculloh found 160 variations of the song, and countless more have been produced since then. Each rendition highlights different themes and lyrics. However there has been some overlap.
Almost every version includes a mention of a train or a railroad, often described as being 100 cars long or taking 3 hours to pass through the town. The railroad seems to be a bad omen. In some versions it’s taking the singer’s lover away from them. In others a person is killed underneath its wheels.
The singer almost always addresses a girl who spent the night in the pines. Sometimes she’s a lover, sometimes she’s a daughter. Understanding this girl and the pines she sleeps in is key to understanding the core of the song. Maybe she’s done something wrong. Cheated on her husband, killed someone, and she’s hiding in the pines out of fear. Maybe she’s down on her luck, and has nowhere else to go. Maybe she’s guilty, maybe she’s downtrodden. She embodies the emotional state of the song- haunting, heavy. She has nothing but her own thoughts in the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines.
360, Studio. “The Haunting Power of ‘in the Pines.’” Slate Magazine, 19 Apr. 2019, slate.com/culture/2019/04/in-the-pines-song-kurt-cobain.html.
“American Routes – In the Pines.” American Routes, scholarblogs.emory.edu/americanroutes/lyrics/pines/. Accessed 2 June 2023.
“Lead Belly.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 6 May 2023, www.britannica.com/biography/Leadbelly.
Weisbard, Eric. “A Simple Song That Lives beyond Time.” The New York Times, 13 Nov. 1994, www.nytimes.com/1994/11/13/arts/pop-music-a-simple-song-that-lives-beyond-time.html?pagewanted=1.