One of my favorite pseudo-bluegrass songs is “In the Pines”. As is the case with many songs like this, it isn’t a bluegrass song at all though, it is one of those songs of “indeterminate origin”. Over the years it has been a blues song, a folk song, a country song, a bluegrass song and a rock song. Rumor has it the song dates back to the mid-to-late 1800s.
Blues artist Lead Belly recorded the song under the titles “Black Girl” and “Where did you Sleep Last Night” various times in the 1940s.
Bill Monroe recorded it at least two times, once in 1941 and once in 1952.
Jimmy Martin recorded it in 1965.
Nirvana even recorded it in a live album in 1993 under the title “Where Did you Sleep Last Night”. They interpreted the song more as a blues number and certainly inject passion into the vocal! The song clearly speaks to a lot of people.
My favorite version of the song isn’t on any record or CD, I heard it late one night standing in the dark around a campfire. It was at Ed Allen’s Campground in Chickahominy, Virginia in either the late 1970s or very early 1980s. A friend and I had been to a Bluegrass Festival there and it was late, it had rained that day on us, and it was foggy. We had stayed though until the end of the on-stage music and had picked a little bit in the parking lot afterwards with various folks and had finally decided it was time to go back home for the night- there was still another day of the festival coming in the morning after all. Things were mostly all quiet as we made our way through the cars and campsites to get to our car, as I said, it was late and kind of damp and most folks had turned in by then.
Somewhere out in the night though someone was still at it and we could hear faintly a fellow singing and playing guitar. We kept trudging along to the car and luckily the singer was on the way and it wasn’t too awful long before I saw him and could hear better. I’ll tell you, it was a poetic sight to see, one lone man standing between us and his campfire so that all we could see was his silhouette. He wasn’t singing with anyone, his friends were there but they were not playing, or watching for that matter. They were either asleep or just sitting and staring into the fire. It was late as I mentioned. I remember stopping when I was close enough to hear well and just standing there in the dark watching him. It was clear he was not singing to or for anyone but himself. Just standing there feeling the music and letting it take his mind wherever it wanted to go. His rhythm playing was sparse and thoughtful and his singing injected more blues into the song than I had ever heard. It was almost like at that moment I could feel the emotion in the words. Honestly, before then I had considered this particular song nothing special, almost like a throw-away cookie cutter one. Standing there in the dark watching the silhouetted guitar player sing that song that night changed all that though. It was like I understood what lonesome felt like for the first time.
The longest train I ever saw
Went down that Georgia line
The engine passed at six o’clock
And the cab passed by at nine
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
And we shiver when the cold wind blows
I asked my captain for the time of day
He said he throwed his watch away
A long steel rail and a short cross tie
I’m on my way back home
Little girl, little girl, what have I done
That makes you treat me so
You caused me to weep, you caused me to mourn
You caused me to leave my home
So give the song a listen or two and maybe take the time to track down the Nirvana version too. I have to say, the Nirvana version is very high on my list of favorites!