WRITTEN BY Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin
APPEARS ON 16 Biggest Hits; 1959 single (Lefty Frizzell), Music From Big Pink (The Band, 1968), At Folsom Prison (Johnny Cash, 1968), many others.
"Long Black Veil" has it all: Murder, love, death, betrayal, madness, injustice, friendship, memory, regret, doubt, grief, and excruciating choice. Written back in 1959 and originally a hit for Lefty Frizzell, "Long Black Veil" has been recorded and performed to such an extent that it has become one of the most beloved American folk songs. I'm partial to The Band's rendition, but there are many worthy performances of this classic.
The song tells the simple story of a man hanged for a crime he did not commit. He withholds his alibi to protect his best friend and his best friend's wife, with whom the man had been having an affair. Grief-stricken and guilt-addled, the wife wanders the hills in a long black veil, secretly visiting his grave "when the night winds wail." The only witness to this is, ironically, the dead man who narrates the song, the man who would not bear witness to save himself.
"Long Black Veil" is a great song -- one of the best -- that packs an intense variety of human emotion into its simple verse-chorus form, sixteen lines in all. The three verses tell the story, establishing the crime, the love triangle, and the eventual death-by-hanging of the narrator. Between each verse comes the the emotional powerhouse of a chorus:
She walks these hills in a long black veilShe visits my grave when the night winds wailNobody knows, nobody seesNobody knows but me
The chorus propels the inevitability of the narrative, inserting itself after each verse so that we know early on what has happened. As the story comes together, we wait hopefully for a reprieve while knowing full well that it won't come. Still, the force of the lyrics and tune are such that we can't help but hope, even though adultery must pay an extreme cost in the harsh universe of "Long Black Veil." In the end, all that remains are the howling, vengeful winds ripping around the grave of a lonely mad visitor.
Ten years ago, on a cold dark nightSomeone was killed 'neath the town hall lightsThere were few at the scene, but they all agreedThat the slayer who ran looked a lot like meShe walks these hills in a long black veilShe visits my grave when the night winds wailNobody knows, nobody seesNobody knows but meThe judge said, "Son, what is your alibi?If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die."I spoke not a word, though it meant my lifeFor I'd been in the arms of my best friend's wifeShe walks these hills in a long black veilShe visits my grave when the night winds wailNobody knows, nobody seesNobody knows but meNow the scaffold is high and eternity's nearShe stood in the crowd and shed not a tearBut sometimes at night when the cold wind moansIn a long black veil she cries over my bonesShe walks these hills in a long black veilShe visits my grave when the night winds wailNobody knows, nobody seesNobody knows but me
Here are versions by Lefty Frizell, The Band, and Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, as well as link to Bob Dylan's stately rendition:
For Bob Dylan's version, click here.