Like numerous other folk songs, "In the Pines" was passed on from one generation and locale to the next by word of mouth. The first printed version of the song, compiled by Cecil Sharp, appeared in 1917, and comprised just four lines and a melody. The lines are:
"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"
In 1925, a version of the song was recorded onto phonograph cylinder by a folk collector. This was the first documentation of "The Longest Train" variant of the song, which includes a stanza about "The longest train I ever saw". This stanza probably began as a separate song that later merged into "In the Pines". Lyrics in some versions about "Joe Brown's coal mine" and "the Georgia line" may refer to Joseph E. Brown, a former Governor of Georgia, who famously leased convicts to operate coal mines in the 1870s. While early renditions which mention the head in the "driver's wheel" make clear that the decapitation was caused by the train, some later versions would omit the reference to the train and reattribute the cause. As music historian Norm Cohen pointed out in his 1981 book, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, the song came to consist of three frequent elements: a chorus about "in the pines", a stanza about "the longest train" and a stanza about a decapitation, but not all elements are present in all versions.
Starting in 1926, commercial recordings of the song were done by various folk and bluegrass bands. In a 1970 dissertation, Judith McCulloh found 160 permutations of the song. As well as rearrangement of the three frequent elements, the person who goes into the pines, or who is decapitated, is described as a man, woman, adolescent, husband, wife, or parent, while the pines can be seen as representing sexuality, death, or loneliness. The train is described as killing a loved one, as taking one's beloved away, or as leaving an itinerant worker far from home.
In variants in which the song describes a confrontation, the person being challenged is always a woman. The folk version by the Kossoy Sisters asks, "Little girl, little girl, where'd you stay last night? Not even your mother knows." The reply to the question, "Where did you get that dress/ And those shoes that are so fine?" from one version is, "From a man in the mines/Who sleeps in the pines." The theme of a woman being caught doing something she should not is thus also common to many variants. One variant, performed in the early twentieth century by the Ellison clan (Ora Ellison, deceased) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, tells of a young Georgia girl who flees to the pines after being raped. Her rapist, a male soldier, is later beheaded by the train.
Some versions of the song also reference the Great Depression, with the "black girl" being a hobo on the move from the police, who witnesses the murder of her father while train-jumping. She hides from this by sleeping in the pines, in the cold.
Maybe one of you legends can track down that original anonymous wax cylinder recording from 1925?
Tue 8 Oct, 2013 08:14 pm
I have two versions of Black Girl, My Girl, by Leadbelly. Many years ago I thought it was his composition. Wish we could know more about it.
Tue 8 Oct, 2013 09:39 pm
A Simple Song That Lives Beyond Time
By Eric Weisbard
In the 1981 book "Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong," the music historian Norm Cohen notes that "In the Pines" has three frequent elements, not all of which always appear. There is the chorus "in the pines," a stanza about "the longest train I ever saw" and another verse in which someone is decapitated by a Train.
"The longest train" section probably began as a separate song, which merged with "In the Pines"; references in some renditions to "Joe Brown's coal mine" and "the Georgia line" may date its origins to Joseph Emerson Brown, a former Georgia governor, who operated coal mines in the 1870's. The earliest printed version was four lines and a melody compiled by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky in 1917. Another variant, mentioning the train accident, was recorded in 1925 by a folk collector onto cylinder, a precursor of the phonograph. The next year, commercial hillbilly recordings of "In the Pines" and "The Longest Train" began appearing.
I first heard it at a bluegrass festival in Virginia circa 1970 by Jimmy Martin. It was a carbon copy of the 1957 Louvin Brothers version. from "Tragic Songs Of Life"
Sat 26 Oct, 2013 10:44 am
Ragman posted Love Is Strange (Mickey & Sylvia) on the Geezer Music thread and got me to investigating the story behind this great song.
I learned some neat stuff researching your post Ragman.
It all started with Billy Stewart and his guitar player Jody Williams
on this tune
At a concert at the Howard Theater in Wash. DC Mickey heard the guitar riff and wrote Love Is Strange around it. But before he could put his version out Bo Diddley released it with....guess who on guitar?
Yes, Jody Williams.
Jody sued Mickey for infringement but was unsuccessful.
Wed 29 Jan, 2014 10:49 pm
Well I'll be! I thought this was the original:
But Jarvis Cocker wrote it for Nancy Sinatra three years before recording his own version.
The iconic "Video killed the radio star" harbinger of MTV and a fanfare for a brave new world that is now dusty and mouldy was not the original. The two members of the Buggles co-wrote it with the guy who did the first recording, Bruce Wooller, who did it with his band Camera Club (who had Thomas Dolby on keys).
Oops, stupid ipad - Bruce Woolley - who has a great CV- wrote 'Slave to the rhythm' for Frankie Goes To Hollywood but it ended up with Grace Jones instead. Even co-wrote the Orb's biggest hit. The first No.1 he wrote was for an Australian band called The Studs, who were known in Australia as The Silver Studs, who had hits in Oz with the Happy Days Theme and some rockabilly cover (Silvery Moon?) and disappeared. But I guess England was still enthralled with Shakin' Stevens so they found success there.
Sat 9 Jan, 2016 05:12 pm
Well I'll be damned.
For some reason I assumed Etta James' 1961 signature tune, the fantastic 'At Last' was the original.
So wrong, Glenn Miller did a couple of versions in 1941-42 - including this one with Ray Eberle on vocals