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Cuttin' Heads: Lead Belly vs Nirvana

Seattle grunge heroes take on Lead Belly’s celebrated version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – but which will have you pining for more?

When Nirvana appeared on MTV’s Unplugged back in 1993, the grunge band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, delivered a song that to their fans would have been not only fresh in their repertoire but also seemed to come from completely out of the left field. ‘My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,’ Cobain almost croons over a jagged acoustic guitar. ‘Tell me, where did you sleep last night?’ And the straying lover replies: ‘In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines... I would shiver the whole night through.’ It remains a mesmerisingly haunting moment more than 20 years on from the performance, Seattle grunge shading beautifully into Southern Gothic – through the medium of an old Lead Belly song. And its history is far longer and more complex than the viewers introduced to it that day would have realised.

Nirvana's and Lead Belly’s are the most gripping and the best known versions of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, but the song is ancient. Sometimes known by that title, sometimes as Black Girl, or In The Pines, or The Longest Train, or Look Up, Look Down That Lonesome Road, it’s one of the oldest patches in the quilt of southern music. But that metaphor isn’t quite right, because a patch of cloth has fixed dimensions, and this song is a shape- shifter, a patch not of material but of colour, spreading across the map of the south, seeping into every hill and hollow, every backwood and bayou.

It has no fixed text to follow, just a handful of motifs, like a bunch of randomly gathered flowers, which the singer can select and arrange to his or her own satisfaction. Some versions begin, as Nirvana’s and Lead Belly’s do, with question and reply. The man suspects a rival – if she wasn’t in his bed, who was she sleeping with? – but the woman disclaims such mundane infidelity. She passed the night in a cold and sunless pine forest, and part of the enduring appeal of the song is that we never find out why.

What we do hear next in this version seems to come from somewhere else entirely. ‘My husband,’ sings Lead Belly, continuing to speak on behalf of the pine-loving (indeed, the pining) woman, ‘was a railroad man’ – until he had a ghastly accident, his head lying severed on the driving wheel, his body never found. Such were the occupational hazards of the early railroad days. The iron horse had thrown another rider to his grisly death, and perhaps the pines in the refrain were standing around an imagined grave. (Cobain messes the words up here, singing, ‘Her husband was a working man, just about a mile from here’ which renders the accident inexplicable.)

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