Single Song Sunday: Long Black Veil
(Vandaveer, Rosanne Cash, David Grey, Jerry Garcia, Tim O’Brien & more!)

This well-covered ballad, originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell just over fifty years ago yet so timeless it’s often erroneously cited as a traditional tune, is not as simple as it seems. Where the vast majority of both traditional and modern folksongs range from simple verse to simple chorus and back again - if indeed they use chorus structure at all - here, the doubled chorus makes for a tripartite pattern, a heart-stutter that well suits the Saki tale of the story, twisted and self-sacrificing, with its well-timed reveal at the end of the second verse, and its grounding in the simple, monosyllabic imagery of cold, darkness, and death.

And yet - in part because the original recording represented Frizzell’s deliberate move away from honky-tonk and towards a more folk/Nashville sound - there’s room for a surprisingly broad variation in the narrative voice, a range of angst and honor available to those who take on the role of the falsely-accused man ready to take his secret to the grave to protect those he loves. As a consequence, the song entered the coverstream early as a standard in several genres, thanks in part to mid-century coverage by Johnny Cash, The Band, Fred Neil, Burl Ives, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and outlaw country musician Sammi Smith, who gave the tune it’s biggest charting record in ‘74.

As with many well-covered songs, there’s plenty of hit-or-miss to be found in the archives here. The Mick Jagger and the Chieftains version, for example, which serves as title track for the Irish band’s 1995 collaborative release, is just about as awful as that combination promises, a dragging poptune with piercing Irish whistle that manages to be both maudlin and syrupy. Baez’ work is not to my taste, either, though to be fair, that’s more of a universal sentiment than a comment on either of the takes she recorded. The infamous Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash duet is, sadly, drowned in strings. The pre-revival folk-hootenanny style which Neil, Ives, and The Kingston Trio adopt is a bit much for me this evening. And much of the best work out there is far too country for a folkblog, leaving Don Williams, Bobby Bare, Smith, and others off our plate for good reason, though you’re welcome to pursue ‘em if your ears bend that way, too.

Still, like all our Single Song Sunday feature songs, Long Black Veil is more than folk enough to have spawned a strong set of eminently listenable covers, from the classic folkrock of Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, and a country-rock-ified David Gray to vastly different yet equally comprehensive rhythmic, melodic, and structural breakdowns from true folk artists Caroline Herring and Kate McDonnell. Roots/bluesman Spencer Bohren turns in a dark, lap-steel driven piece, while the bluegrass balladry of Tim O’Brien and Garcia and Grisman demonstrate a wide range within the form, too. And even more slow, tender, and stripped down alt-folk versions from Vandaveer, The Proclaimers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Rosanne Cash call more to the country origins of the song without straying beyond a core folk sound.

Here, take a listen, and hear what I mean.

Cover Lay Down posts your favorite coverfolk each Wednesday and Sunday.

Category: Single Song Sunday

5 Responses to “Single Song Sunday: Long Black Veil
(Vandaveer, Rosanne Cash, David Grey, Jerry Garcia, Tim O’Brien & more!)

  1. boyhowdy

    My SINCERE apologies to several regulars - I seem to have accidentally deleted several comments here in an attempt to delete some spam. :( I know that two were comments about source material, and the other was a link to the Burl Ives cover, which I wish I had heard in time…anything else missing? Feel free to reinstate!

  2. Charlie Nickrenz

    Hi, here’s a link to a version of LBV by my old L.A. band, the Shills, that you may enjoy. Based on the Band’s v, the feedback from the accordion at the beginning makes it so worthwhile!
    Great Job

  3. Arlene

    A prior (different) poster had noted that Emmylou Harris isn’t backing Dave Matthews on the version of LBV posted above. (However, Emmylou DID provide backing vocals for Dave Mathews on televised versions of LBV performed at a 1999 Johnny Cash tribute concert and on a 2000 episode of Austin City Limits. (Boyhowdy- if you’re interested in getting copies of either version with Emmylou, shoot me an e-mail).

  4. dead_elvis

    Great list, but you missed my favorite version - from the Neko Case/Carolyn Mark collaboration, The Corn Sisters. It’s full of good stuff!

  5. Horace the Unicorn

    I agree that these are interesting versions. I also like the ones by Hazel Dickens and mick Jagger with the Chieftains

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