In the Pines, IV
A couple weeks ago, a co-worker decided that several of us should play a game. This was a musical game: Pick a song, in secret, that “best describes who you are”. Once everyone selected their own identifying track, we would be given a list of people and a list of songs. The point of the game was to match the song to the player.
It was a difficult game for me. Not so much the “playing” of it (I came in second); rather, simply selecting a song that described me was an effort akin to cleaning the Augean stables.
What the hell, man? What the hell?
This is not a song that I like. It’s a song that best describes who I am. That’s tough. It took me a whole day of combing my library to find the right track:
Because this track, over many others, actually represents a great deal about who I am.
The first time I heard Lanegan’s version was 1991, I think. I was working as a disc jockey at a nightclub (I wasn’t quite old enough to drink but I was “cool” with some people and knew my shit and had filled in on emergency shifts so there we are). It was maybe an hour before we opened, the owner, Kerwood, threw The Winding Sheet on over the system while we set up.
The track came on and I was instantly able to sing along to it. I didn’t know how or why; I just knew the lyrics.
(Kerwood is long gone now, overdosed on amphetamines, dead in a small West Virginia town. The man would wake at five in the afternoon, take a hit of LSD, do a couple of whippits, and then drink until he couldn’t feel the acid anymore.
And then he’d take more acid.)
(He once smoked me out and the joint was laced with PCP. That experience set me off pot for about a decade.)
In the Pines is a folk song from the Appalachians, where I was born and raised. I have fuzzy memories of people singing it around me. My grandmother? Possibly; she had a robin’s voice and there are many songs my three-year-old self learned while sitting on her lap.
(I learned it primarily as “In the mines, in the mines,” by the way, which makes more sense given the coal mining focus of my people.)
Lanegan’s version was a powerful retelling for me. It took the folk music I knew (and liked) and recast it, cloaking it with a chaotic distortion and anguish I’d never heard.
That mental shift has remained with me.
Do the lyrics reflect me? Not so much. It’s not the words. For me, the song represents my struggle to continually merge my history, lineage, and folklore into the modern, progressive mindset that dominates me.
When I am alone playing my guitar? My fingers fall into the patterns of Appalachian blues and folk. Take that, slow it down (or speed it up). Add in some echo, a lot of distortion, noise, fuzz – scream it, scream everything
birth to dying, all we are is trying
If you can understand that, then maybe I’ve succeeded in dumping my brain into notes and noise.
Nearly everyone playing the game guessed that song was mine, by the way.
An interesting bit of history about Lanegan’s version:
Mark Lanegan’s biggest fame comes from being the vocalist for a couple different bands: The Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age (with one of my favorite musicians, Josh Homme, the brilliance behind Kyuss), the Gutter Twins (with the other of my favorite musicians, Greg Dulli, from the Afghan Whigs).
The recording of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, in 1989, was actually intended to be one of the first tracks on an album by a new band (for Lanegan and Mark Pickerel, the Trees’ drummer) called “Lithium.”
The bassist on that track (and for the band)? Kris Novoselic. The guitarist? A young upstart and major fan of Lanegan’s named Kurt Cobain (who was once turned down as bassist for the Melvins – a job that would go to Lori “Lorax” Black, daughter of Shirley Temple).
When Nirvana covered the track for their “Unplugged” session, they were actually covering Mark Lanegan’s version (which was based on a 78 RPM recording he had of Lead Belly). Lead Belly’s most common lyrics went “Black girl, black girl, where did you go…”
Years later, Dave Grohl (the only member of Nirvana not involved in the recording) would refer to The Winding Sheet as one of the best albums of all time and one of Nirvana’s biggest influences.