“In The Pines” dates back to at least the American Civil War and has many variations. In 1970, an Indiana University Ph.D student named Judith McCulloh wrote her thesis about the song, and decided she would only include those versions that contained at least one of the following signature couplets:
- “In the pines, in the pines…”
- “The longest train I ever saw…”
She found more than 150 versions, two-thirds of which were recordings.
An Englishman named Cecil Sharp was the first to publish the song (under the title “Black Girl”) after a songcatching tour of Appalachia during the First World War.
The first recording was made on cylinder in 1925 in North Carolina, followed a year later by this version by banjoist Dock Walsh:
The most influential versions were recorded by Bill Monroe in 1941 and blues musician Lead Belly (aka Huddie Ledbetter) in 1944. Their versions are different branches of the same pine tree, illustrating how the two main versions of the song differ. Monroe’s is mostly about the lonesome train with only a bit of girl talk, while Lead Belly’s is all about the girl and there’s even a decapitation involved (decapitation by train, of course).
Modern audiences know the song from Kurt Cobain’s anguished performance in the Lead Belly style on Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged special, which came less than five months before Cobain’s suicide.
The song is in 3/4 time, with an easy-to-follow chord progression that never departs from the I, IV and V chords.
I believe Monroe was the first to howl like a train whistle on the last two lines of each chorus, and that has become pretty standard among bluegrassers.
“In The Pines” Lyrics and Chords
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Iconic: Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys
Flatpicking Feast: Clarence White
Also Good: Nirvana