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I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife
July 24, 2014 1:39 AM   Subscribe

Unlike most murder ballads, The Long Black Veil doesn't retell the story of an actual murder. Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin borrowed bits of stories about Valentino and a murdered priest and a Red Foley chorus and crafted their own story in 1959 to create what he hoped would be a folk song for the ages.

It became a country standard, first in the hands of Lefty Frizzell, but Johnny Cash is the one who put it through the stratosphere.

Marijohn Wilkin, who cowrote the song, also wrote a response record a few years later:My Long Black Veil.

Many, many people seem to have covered the original song. Here's a few more versions: Joan Baez. Rosanne Cash. The Seldom Scene. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Bob Dylan. Marianne Faithfull. Caroline Herring. Burl Ives. Hank III. The Chieftains

It's a song that has inspired a number of duets. Take your pick: Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The Chieftains and Mick Jagger. Dave Matthews and Emmylou Harris
posted by julen (48 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't forget the wonderful version from The Band.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:05 AM on July 24 [17 favorites]


I'd always thought it was a "genuine" folk song in the "folklore" sense; hundreds of years old and sung by my grandparents and their grandparents before them. I had no idea it was so... young.
posted by Shepherd at 2:51 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


Excellent post! Songs like this and artists like Gillian Welch are what I point to when folks claim they hate country music.

Gillian Welch will be played at my funeral, and there will not be a dry eye in the house. For some reason, this provides me a small amount of comfort in the cool dark night.
posted by valkane at 2:54 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


There was a pretty cool discussion of this song on Marc Maron's podcast when he interviewed Rosanne Cash.
posted by Mchelly at 3:17 AM on July 24


I love this song. I had no idea there was a response version and can't wait to listen to it.

Don't forget about David Grey.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:48 AM on July 24


I'd always thought it was a "genuine" folk song in the "folklore" sense

There's *almost* no such thing! Songs that can't be traced back to an author or an identifiable commercial origin (English "broadside ballads" for example) are actually somewhat rare. "Oh Death" is such a song: apparently no one has any clue as to who wrote it and exactly when. But that's one of the exceptions to the rule.

From the tone of your comment, Shepherd, I can tell that you are almost certainly aware of this fact, and I don't make my comment to *educate* you or anything like that, though. Just wanted to make that little point.

And thanks for the great post, julen.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:56 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I remember the first time I heard it, listening to The Band's Music From Big Pink all the way through after hearing that it was one of the great under-appreciated albums of the 60s. My heart just dropped when I realized what the song was about; it's just so heartbreakingly honorable, tragic and dishonorable, all mixed together. That image of the ghost watching the wife wander the hills, thinking "Nobody knows but me" - jesus, that's chilling, like the scene in the first season of Carnivale where the prostitute gets taken by the ghost miners forever. Brrrrr.

And yeah, it definitely feels like a truly timeless folk ballad that goes back to the Renaissance era or something, and it's cracking me up that it's actually based in part on a publicity stunt surrounding the grave of Rudolph Valentino. And that moment at 1:15 in the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison version where he cracks up when the crowd applauds the "been in the arms of my best friend's wife" line is wonderful. Great post, thanks.
posted by mediareport at 4:22 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Wow, Dave Matthews can turn any song into a . . . Dave Matthews song.
posted by liketitanic at 4:55 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]


Don't forget the wonderful version from The Band

I didn't think that would be possible. For me, that's the definitive version of the song.
posted by sutt at 5:44 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


There's *almost* no such thing! Songs that can't be traced back to an author or an identifiable commercial origin (English "broadside ballads" for example) are actually somewhat rare.

Pretty Polly is a perfect example of the process flapjax is talking about here. It's story (and many of the verses we still sing today) can be traced directly back to a British ballad sheet printed by 1750 at the latest.

I've spent quite a bit of time over the past five years tracing various murder ballads like this back to their sources, and you can find the results of my research here.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:47 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


This was one of my favorite songs growing up (I'll accept whatever you think that says about me), and it's awesome to have all these versions in one place. The version I first heard was the John Anderson version with Merle Haggard, which is fine, but not nearly as good as some others.

Like Shepherd, I always thought it was an older song. Either way, the song is so perfect in construction, nothing out of place or unnecessary, the exact right mix of as mediareport puts it, honor and dishonor. So good.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:50 AM on July 24


My favorite version is this live version by The Band. So perfectly suited to Rick Danko's quavery, melancholy, wonderful voice. The other day it came on my iPod as I was walking by an old cemetery and I got the heebie jeebies right quick.
posted by sallybrown at 5:58 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I like Caroline Herring's version best myself!
posted by liketitanic at 6:04 AM on July 24


d'oh, it's already up there.
posted by liketitanic at 6:05 AM on July 24


I first heard Long Black veil as a child (about 8 or 9 years old) being sung by my older sister, who was a teenage folkie. From her versions I heard a lot of the kinds of folk songs that Joan Baez and others were recording at that time. My earliest exposure to live music, and right there at home! I used to beg her to play Matty Groves (which had about 17,000 verses) and she'd almost never do it!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:07 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Let's not forget Mike Ness!
posted by lyssabee at 6:27 AM on July 24


I always got a little bit annoyed when people thought The Band wrote this song.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:29 AM on July 24


Paul Slade, your murder ballad site is most excellent and a very welcome resource. I'm grabbing every page to read while on vacation. I've been working on playing Stagger Lee, and Frankie & Johnny, for a few months and absorbing all the recorded version out there. Great stuff, thank you!
posted by BlackPebble at 6:31 AM on July 24


I always thought it was a modern American song.

Town halls are American. Street lights are generally post Victorian. The concept "best friend" is another more modern detail. If the ballad were old it would have simply been the man's own brother. The judge calls the singer, "Son" and that is certainly a modern sort of detail. If it were from older centuries he might have been called "Lad" or "Young Man" Even the music has a sort of Southern American Country Rhythm to it.

But it's a wonderful piece of music with a beautiful tale.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:36 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I always thought it was a modern American song.

Town halls are American. Street lights are generally post Victorian. The concept "best friend" is another more modern detail. If the ballad were old it would have simply been the man's own brother. The judge calls the singer, "Son" and that is certainly a modern sort of detail. If it were from older centuries he might have been called "Lad" or "Young Man"


Worth keeping in mind here that lots of old English (Scottish, Irish, etc) ballads and songs have been transformed and have evolved, in myriad ways, to reflect the different environment and vocabulary and social milieu of the singers who continued singing them in the New World. A brother may well become a best friend, "lad" can easily become "son", etc. etc. It's happened time and again. Versions of "St. James Infirmary" and "Streets of Laredo", for example, are very different, in many ways, from the original English broadside ballad "The Unfortunate Rake", from which they evolved. So, more modern-day language and socio-cultural references are not, in and of themselves, always a clear indication that the original song isn't from hundreds of years back and/or from another land altogether.

Even the music has a sort of Southern American Country Rhythm to it.

Same point applies. Music changes most of all!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:50 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


I first heard it on a Kingston Trio album. Which is sort of like hearing Little Richard songs covered by Pat Boone.
posted by Danf at 6:51 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Which is sort of like hearing Little Richard songs covered by Pat Boone.

Perfect analogy!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:53 AM on July 24


I have to thank Nick Cave for introducing me to The Long Black Veil, when I bought Kicking Against the Pricks back in the 80s. Oh and I first heard St. James Infirmary on the Triffids's Treeless Plain album. Thank you for exposing me to amazing American songs, Australian post-punk artists!
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:57 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Springsteen was also singing the song during his Seeger Sessions album time period (here he is on tour, singing it), which comes as no real surprise.

I was inspired to look the song up last night because I was idly singing it, and I suddenly realized that the people who knew the secret of the affair were either dead or mourning silently. So - assuming that ghosts might have songwriting skills but were unlikely to get the song published - I wondered how did the tale got told with the secret holding and no communal shaming, pity, or karmic balancing out.
posted by julen at 6:58 AM on July 24


I just came in here to mention Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds!
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds!
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds!
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds!
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds!
posted by Fizz at 7:03 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Thanks to a few idiots who wouldn't stop screaming for old Birthday Party songs (which was so not going to happen, this was a lone piano night) Nick Cave actually walked out on a show I was at, during Long Black Veil (which, at the time, I thought was a Johnny Cash original).

(these idiots were sitting directly behind us, things got... heated)

((but hey, I got to hear Nick sing the rarely heard verse that talks about idiots ruining a nice evening))
posted by Cosine at 7:48 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Welp, metafilter, you got my $5, just so I can share my two favorite versions of this:

Neko Case and and Carolyn Mark as the Corn Sisters:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwpQgP7P050

Barry White's funky instrumental version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MiHA5Jdhrc
posted by turntraitor at 8:28 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


Holy shit, turntraitor, that fully orchestrated, funky as hell Barry White version is incredible. When the horns kick in! Thanks for that one.
posted by mediareport at 8:36 AM on July 24


Man thanks for that Kingston Trio link, I could listen to them sing anything. That said my defining version is definitely Joan Baez, she can sing it with such heartbreak.
posted by Carillon at 8:48 AM on July 24


I first heard the Cash version and completely enjoyed it then. It doesn't surprise me that it's a recent product (compared to something from the 1800s or further), but it definitely strikes the right type of subject matter and visuals. It's so very haunting...


There's *almost* no such thing! Songs that can't be traced back to an author or an identifiable commercial origin (English "broadside ballads" for example) are actually somewhat rare. "Oh Death" is such a song: apparently no one has any clue as to who wrote it and exactly when. But that's one of the exceptions to the rule.

There's but one old recording of my great-grandfather from Appalachia singing Oh Death...and the only copy my father has went missing a number of years ago. Thank you for reminding me to go bug a great-uncle about another copy.
posted by Atreides at 8:58 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


So many great links here. Thanks so much.

It's a song that has inspired a number of duets.... Gillian Welch and David Rawlings."

It's funny, but it's hard for me to think of those two as singing a duet. They've always just been like a single unit to me. A single voice, basically.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:28 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I like the song but I think it requires a singer with a certain experience of life to really make it work. A Celtic-oriented folk band of my acquaintance used to sing it, and the fellow who sang lead was maybe eighteen or nineteen when they picked it up. Even apart from the "ten years ago you'd have been in elementary school" issue, he just didn't have the roughness around the edges. It wasn't just the years, it was the (lack of) mileage.

Mind you, that was fifteen or twenty years ago and I'm sure he could do a great job with it now.
posted by immlass at 9:29 AM on July 24


I've heard Bruce Hornsby work this into his sets a number of times, too, into a number called "White Wheeled Limousine." It wasn't until I later heard the Johnny Cash version that I understood what was going on. Here's a version where he gets to that bit at about the 8 minute mark.
posted by MoonOrb at 9:42 AM on July 24


No joke, this is one of my family's favorite songs, probably thanks to The Chieftans' version. It's on the "set list" around half the time we sing together (that's in the living room, not on stage or anything). I even remember being a little scandalized by it as a 9 or 10yo kid. It's a great, great song for harmonizing.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:25 AM on July 24


This rendition is a little timid and on the nose for my tastes, but in the interests of completeness: The Proclaimers.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:05 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I'm loving the guitar on the Marianne Faithful version, although I wish she hadn't gone quite so pretty on her vocals.
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:26 AM on July 24


although I wish she hadn't gone quite so pretty on her vocals.

Didn't think that was even possible any more.
posted by e1c at 11:46 AM on July 24


ロングブラックベール, because why not.
posted by wintersweet at 12:37 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Y'all missed Diamanda Galás.
posted by bink at 1:24 PM on July 24


Terrific post, thank you.
posted by theora55 at 1:44 PM on July 24


It's funny, but it's hard for me to think of those two as singing a duet. They've always just been like a single unit to me. A single voice, basically.

I hear you. Those two are just… damn. That's some of the deepest vocal/musical ESP I know of. Almost scary, really. I think on that sad day that one of them dies, the other is gonna drop dead too.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:16 PM on July 24


The first time I heard this song it was played by The Move. I'm sure they're imitating someone else but I don't know who. Awesome harmony vocals on that.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:56 PM on July 24


This is alovely post, and there are some great links in the comments, but the lyrics of this song annoy me in a way very few things in this world can. That the melody is engaging and it's been covered by some of my favorite artists doesn't help.

The pointless waste in the story is overwhelming. Killing someone out of honor is grotesque, even if it's you that's being killed. And, what are we to make of the woman who would rather watch her lover die than risk impropriety? The black veil is a nice touch, but not sending innocent people to their death sure would have been nicer. An ethical person doesn't kill people to preserve their public image. (This assumes, of course, that the woman in the veil is a real person with agency and ethics, which isn't at all obvious in the song, no matter how many awesome women sing it.) A sane cost-benefit analysis wouldn't choose suicide over disgrace, and a sensible folk-singer wouldn't try to trick us into believing such is the right choice with flowery words and language.

Now, it's true that I'm a lot more skeptical of monogamy, marriage, and the law than most people seem to be. But, I have a hard time understanding how even true-believers could find the story compelling. Is adultery and senseless killing and lying to the world somehow better than adultery alone? The narrator is an idiot, and he's in love with a monster, his best friend's a dupe. If you ask me, that ain't worth celebrating.

But, of course, when it comes to folk songs with unethical actors, it's silly to pick on this one. There are a thousand less-sympathetic story tellers who don't annoy me. Given a choice between sacrificing yourself to preserve the dignity of someone you care about and going on a bender and murdering your lover for no damned reason or killing someone for messing with your hat, it's clear that the hero of Long Black Veil is a lot closer to the person I want to be. But, at some deep gut level, I can't believe it. I can invent arguments that most of the good songs about bad people recognize their flaws, while Long Black Veil seems intent on selling us on the narrator's disturbed world view. But, it's probably also true that pointless, premeditated self-sacrifice is just close enough to things I actually believe in that it makes me uncomfortable.
posted by eotvos at 10:53 PM on July 24


A sane cost-benefit analysis wouldn't choose suicide over disgrace, and a sensible folk-singer wouldn't try to trick us into believing such is the right choice with flowery words and language.

Well, that depends, what if disgrace includes a strong possibility of life in poverty or murder? It's less of a problem today in America, but I'm still trying to peel away the euphemisms surrounding my "fallen" great-grandmother and what she did to earn a living as an unwed, not a widowed, mother.

In some ways, the song makes more sense genderswapped given the historically higher consequences of being outed.

But I don't think we're to cheer the characters of many murder ballads, we're to regard them as cautionary tales of people who suffer the consequences of bad decisions within a culture of violent sexual jealousy or honor murder. "West Side Story" comes to mind, in spite of its flaws, because the second act repeatedly batters the audience with scene after scene of emotional devastation. The Long Black Veil doesn't demand approval, just empathy for the emotional devastation brought on by the choice to remain silent.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:54 AM on July 25 [2 favorites]


a sensible folk-singer wouldn't try to trick us into believing such is the right choice with flowery words and language.

Who said it was the *right* choice? The song simply tells a tale, and doesn't take sides, doesn't opine about what's right or wrong or noble or just or fair or… anything. It's just a ghost, a dead man, relating a story. And that's it. Every listener can draw his own conclusions, can interpret it however he likes. But no one is trying to *trick* anyone.

Otherwise, what CBrachyrhynchos said. Well put, CBrachyrhynchos.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:03 AM on July 25


The fact that it's a fucked up story is the point. I don't think we're expected to say, "Great life choices man!" See also: Gothic literature, particularly Southern Gothic.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:37 AM on July 25 [4 favorites]


See the very first comment on this interesting and mysterious Gawker post...I like to think this song is in the zeitgeist.
posted by sallybrown at 8:00 PM on July 30


this interesting and mysterious Gawker post…

She inspired a song. I posted it to Metafilter Music. It's called Woman In Black.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:48 AM on July 31


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