Kurt Cobain died 25 years ago this month, and the weekend after his body was found, MTV ran the MTV Unplugged special on a loop. It was filmed just five months before and it was haunting to see Cobain resurrected, singing from a dimly lit stage surrounded by candles and lilies. But there was also something about the last song of the night—a song he called “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”—that made the whole performance feel creepily prescient.
It starts out with a question, an accusation: “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?”
And the answer is dire: “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun doesn’t shine and I shiver the whole night through.”
And then later a man, her husband, is found dead—decapitated of all things. We don’t know why, but whatever is happening with this girl, it’s dark. But what’s striking about Cobain’s performance is his emotional tenderness. It doesn’t feel like anger propels his questions, but grief.
“The way he delivered that song, it really felt like he was almost foreseeing his own demise,” says Eric Weisbard, a music critic and professor of American studies at the University of Alabama. “And however romantic and absurd that sounds, nonetheless I think that was a real experience that many people had watching that.”
“It felt special because it felt like it was a song that spoke to him,” says Beth McCarthy-Miller, the director of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged special. “When someone does a cover a song they like, it gives you a glimpse into the artist what kind of music they like, and what kind of music moves them and interests them. And it was so clear how much that song meant to him. Oh, people were mesmerized, and you know half the people in the room had no idea what that song was.”
Cobain called the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” but it’s also called “In the Pines,” sometimes “Black Girl,” or “My Girl.”
It’s a folk song and as such, its origins are foggy. It was probably born from African Americans living along or east of the Appalachian Mountains around the turn of the 20th century. It’s also what’s called, a murder ballad—which is a European tradition that stretches as far back as the Renaissance. In Shakespeare’s time, when some gruesome slaying or rape occured, the crime was transcribed and printed onto large pieces of paper which were sold on the streets. Over time, the popular ones would be set to music.
Then, when the English and Scottish began to cross the Atlantic, they brought this commemoration of shocking crimes with them. When they settled along the Appalachians, the European murder ballad became a bedrock of the American folk tradition. You can hear it in popular songs like “Long Black Veil,” “Pretty Polly” and “Delia’s Gone”:
Murder ballads tell a wide variety of tragic tales, but they have a few things in common: They’re stories, first and foremost, and at the heart of the story is a transgression, most often made by a woman. She’s done something society deems untoward, she’s cheated, flirted, stayed out too late, or simply didn’t return a man’s favor.
Then there’s the tone. Murder ballads are haunting and mournful, of course, but there’s this added level of creepiness when a story of a gruesome death is being told in harmony, sweetly, or almost crooning, like Johnny Cash did.
As for our murder ballad, “In the Pines” has its own collection of lyrical calling cards, which first start come together in 1926, when a banjoist named Dock Walsh makes the first commercial recording of the song. Right off the bat he introduces us to one of the key elements of the song—the pines.
“In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines and I shiver when the cold wind blows.”
Another element is the train—a mysteriously long train.
“The longest train I ever saw went down that Georgie line. The engine it stopped at a six-miles post, the cabin it never left town.”
But Walsh’s version also includes those murder ballad elements like, a transgression and confrontation:
“Now darlin, now darlin don’t tell me no lie, where did you stay last night?”
And then, an act of violence:
“The train run back back one mile from town and killed my girl, you know. Her head was caught in the driver’s wheel, her body I never could find.”
Not all of the versions of this song will include all of these elements. Artists in the decades to come will pick and choose depending on the story they want to tell or the mood they want to evoke. But the pines—that cold dark wilderness—will become the most common refrain that ties all the various versions together.
“I think the pines symbolizes a wilderness,” says Elizabeth DiSavino, a professor of music at Brea College in Kentucky. “A place where a person has left to be by themselves to face what they are and what they have done.”
It’s in the 1940s, that the song really starts to put down roots with two major, influential and lasting renditions of “In the Pines” by two very important artists. First, is Bill Monroe—a Kentucky man, a mandolin player and singer-songwriter who would become known as the Father of Bluegrass. In 1941 Monroe records a version of “In the Pines” with his band The Bluegrass Boys.
“I would call that recording a pre-bluegrass era recording,” DiSavino says. “You know by that point Monroe was playing concerts and selling records and he was kind of a big deal in early country music.”
In Monroe’s version, there’s actually no mention of death or violence, so it eschews the murder ballad elements of its predecessors and becomes a bit lighter and sweeter in tone. But it retains that sad and haunting quality thanks to the high harmonies of Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys telling this tale about the enigmatic train that takes his love away.
“What’s more country than a heartbreak song,” she says. “I think that’s very much in character of the kinds of songs that Bill Monroe sang and became a part of the bluegrass repertoire.”
The other pivotal musician for this song is the great early 20th-century folk and blues musician Lead Belly. Lead Belly was playing music and gaining a reputation in Louisiana and Texas in the early 1900s. But his music really got a wider audience after he met the folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1930s.
“Alan Lomax toted Lead Belly around to society people in New York,” DiSavino says. “You can see in videos he’s singing to these ladies in pink chiffon gowns and he’s got this face like these people really want me to sing this here?”
In 1944, in New York, Lead Belly records the first of at least a half-dozen versions of “In the Pines,” which he most often calls “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” or “Black Girl,” or “Black Gal.”
“He found this song and reinterpreted it and made it his own,” she says. “He sort of blues-ified it.”
In his versions, Lead Belly leans into the darkness of the song. That bluesified effect gives the song a creepier feel, like something’s not right. It’s also, musically bare. It’s just his voice and his guitar. It’s lonely. In his song, Lead Belly addresses either “my girl” or “black girl,” probably depending on the white or black audiences he was singing to at the time. And, lyrically, he does away with the train entirely. Instead, Lead Belly focuses on the confrontation and the murder.
“Lead Belly lead a violent life,” she says. “He was in jail for murder. This is very in character to sing a song about violence and murder.”
“The Lead Belly version he’s very much to my mind emphasizing the love gone wrong,” says music critic and professor Eric Weisbard. “And the sense of being in the pines as being alienated from love and alienated from life that way.”
From this moment on, the versions of “In the Pines” follow either Monroe—a tender, high-lonesome country/bluegrass song about a mysterious train and a heartbreak—or Lead Belly, a musically stark and lyrically bleak murder ballad that emphasizes isolation and death. And you can actually see a pattern emerge over time, with each subsequent decade, each generation picking a tradition for themselves.
In the latest episode of Studio 360 (which along with being a public-radio show is a Slate podcast), producer Lauren Hansen tells the long, rich musical and social history of a great old American song, before and after Kurt Cobain and Nirvana took a turn at making it theirs. This includes speaking with musicians Bill Callahan and Fantastic Negrito, who both covered the song.
To hear a full audio version, listen to this episode of Studio 360 below. The story begins at 26:00, with an introduction from host Kurt Andersen. You can also subscribe and listen to the show on Apple Podcasts.
Studio 360 is a Peabody Award–winning show from Public Radio International.