Thursday, May 24, 2012

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

This trance-like song, sung by Nirvana, is an old old song. Originally known as "In the Pines," it's a traditional American folk song dating from the 1870s, probably from Southern Appalachia. Like many old standards, nobody knows who wrote it, but Lead Belly (or Leadbelly), the black folk/blues singer who almost inexplicably gained fame in the 1940s, basically made it his own with some new lyrics (he called the song "Black Girl") and a new arrangement. The song always had a dark tinge, given that it described the aftermath of a decapitation, but Lead Belly made it almost gothic.

Lead Belly (real name: Huddie William Ledbetter) was extraordinarily talented but his rise to fame had much to do with what white people thought was "authentic." In the early 1930s, folk collector John Lomax basically set out to find "authentic" black music, "untarnished" by European (=white) culture, and plucked Lead Belly out of prison in Louisiana. He basically forced Lead Belly to play what Lomax considered "savage" music ("genuine Negro folks songs") even though Lead Belly's repertoire actually included mostly white country music. This was a classic case of white people looking for a "noble savage"; and if Lead Belly didn't quite fit the bill, Lomax created an entire fantasy around the man who was known to be a very soft-spoken and gentle individual. Note Lomax's description:
Leadbelly is a nigger to the core of his being. In addition he is a killer. He tells the truth only accidentally... He is as sensual as a goat, and when he sings to me my spine tingles and sometimes tears come. Penitentiary wardens all tell me that I set no value on my life in using him as a traveling companion.
This is not to suggest that Lead Belly didn't sing some pretty dark stuff, just that he was actually much more versatile and complex a musician than Lomax was willing to portray. Lomax made Lead Belly popular in the 1930s, but ironically during his lifetime, Lead Belly was much more well-known among leftist radical white activists (what we would call "hipsters" today) than with African-Americans. (His concerts in Harlem were apparently total flops). Which is where Kurt Cobain comes in. Cobain had a fascination with Lead Belly and recorded a bunch of his songs (I think they're still unreleased). But I think his genius with this MTV Unplugged performance was to slightly alter Lead Belly's version. Authors Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in Faking It explain exactly what Cobain did:
He changed the first chord of each verse from major to minor (occasionally adding a fourth [note]), thus imbuing the song with an even more melancholy tone; he slowed the tempo way down doubling the song's length and also increasing its sadness; he changed the repeated words "black girl" to "my girl," thus erasing Leadbelly's racial perspective;... after singing all the verses of Leadbelly's version, he repeated some of them, first sotto voce, then raising his voice an octave... lending the song an air of complete desperation because of his straining to hit the high notes; and [then, finally] he sang the song's last words ("I'll shiver the whole night through") in half-time, his voice completely hoarse and ragged, thus adding an undeniably dramatic flourish to what was, in the original, only plain repetition. The result is a terribly haunting and emotional performance.
I guess those little changes combined together = innate talent (or genius?). Apparently after the performance, Cobain argued with MTV producers who wanted an encore. He refused because he felt that he couldn't top the performance of that last song. On that, he was absolutely right.