… she walks these hills in a
LONG BLACK VEIL
Norman Warwick hears a tale of murder most foul
Murder ballads are a subgenre of the traditional ballad form dealing with a crime or a gruesome death. Their lyrics form a narrative describing the events of a murder, often including the lead-up and/or aftermath. The term refers to the content, and may be applied to traditional ballads, part of oral culture.
It is a Bronte ghost story, a Thomas hardy novel and a Mills And Boon romance rolled into one. I can´t remember when or where I first heard nor who told it to me. It seemed to me one of those tales that belongs with The Reverend Mr. Black or with Kate Bush or that song about the Silver Dagger that Joan Baez used to sing. It carried echoes of Mack The Knife or The Ballad Of Hollis Brown.
Murder ballads make up a notable portion of traditional ballads, many of which originated in Scandinavia, England, and lowland Scotland in the pre-modern era (suggesting an ultimate Germanic cultural origin).In those, while the murder is committed, the murderer usually suffers justice at the hands of the victim’s family, even if the victim and murderer are related (see “Edward/Son David”, “The Cruel Brother”, and “The Two Sisters” for examples). In these ballads murderous women usually burn while males hang—see “Lamkin” and some Scottish versions of “The Two Sisters”. Within the context of the British isles, murder ballads are only found in English and Scots-speaking regions (broadly, England, lowland Scotland, and north eastern Ireland), and are not a feature of Gaelic or Welsh-language music.
The details and locales for a particular murder ballad did change over time. For example, “Knoxville Girl” is essentially the same ballad as “The Wexford Girl” with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee—the two of them are based on “The Oxford Girl”, a murder ballad set in England. Many American murder ballads are modified versions of Old World ballads with any elements of supernatural retribution removed and the focus transferred to the slaughter of the innocent. For example, the English ballad “The Gosport Tragedy” of the 1750s had both murder and vengeance on the murderer by the ghosts of the murdered woman and her unborn baby, who call up a great storm to prevent his ship sailing before tearing him apart. In contrast, the Kentucky version, “Pretty Polly“, is a stark and blood-soaked murder ballad with the victim being betrayed by the man she loves, stabbed in the heart, and buried in a shallow grave. The epilogue describes her killer being hanged by the community and his soul burning in hell and a “debt to the Devil” in a few versions.
African music traditions brought by slaves blended with the conventions. Olive Burt noted that the murder ballad tradition of the American Old West is distinct to some extent from that of ballads rooted in the old broadside tradition, noting that:
Western settlers found murder and bloodshed fascinating, and composed local ballads. But with printing facilities scarce, many of these items were not published at all while others saw fame only briefly in the columns of the local newspapers. As a result, true western ballads of murder—except those about such famous outlaws as Jesse James, Cole Younger, Sam Bass, and their ilk—have been entirely lost, or are known only to the children of those who knew and sang them. These children are now, of course, old men and women. Some of the best examples of western murder ballads will be lost forever when these people die.
Several historical murder ballads became hit pop songs in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” (as mentioned above), which was a #1 Billboard hit in 1958, Lloyd Price‘s version of “Stagger Lee” also reached the top of the chart in 1959, while Lefty Frizzell‘s “Long Black Veil” was a hit for a number of artists over the years.
Released in 1959, the storytelling song, “Long Black Veil,” has one of the most bone-chilling narratives of any song of the 20th century. As a result, it’s an all-time classic and a song many wish they’d written, themselves.
It’s also one of the most covered country songs of all time (more on this below).
Let’s dive into the song’s history.
The country ballad, which was written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill was originally recorded by country star Lefty Frizzell.
photo 2 Marijohn Wilk (née Melson; July 14, 1920 – October 28, 2006) was an American songwriter, famous in country music for writing a number of hits. Wilkin won numerous awards over the years and was referred to as “The Den Mother of Music Row,” as chronicled in her 1978 biography Lord, Let Me Leave ASong (right authored with Darryl E. Hicks). It was honoured as “One of the 100 Most Important Books about Nashville’s Music Industry.
Wilkin was born in Kemp, Texas and raised in Sanger, Texas, north of Dallas. She became a teacher, and was widowed when her husband Bedford Russell was killed in World War II. She remarried in 1946, with one son; her 1950 marriage to Art Wilkin, Jr. was her third.
Her father, a baker, had been a fiddle player. From 1955 she toured with Red Foley, and in 1956 her songs were recorded by Mitchell Torok and Wanda Jackson. In 1958, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and had major hits, written with John D. Loudermilk, for Stonewall Jackson (the number one country hit “Waterloo“, which made the pop top ten) and Jimmy C. Newman.
Wilkin also wrote The Long Black Veil for Lefty Frizzell (with Danny Dill), Cut Across Shorty for Eddie Cochran (with Wayne P. Walker), and I Just Don’t Understand which became a pop hit for Ann-Margret and was covered by The Beatles. Although she was primarily a country songwriter, her songs have been recorded by several pop and rock acts, including Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. Wilkin also recorded occasionally for Columbia Records and Dot Records in the 1960s and at times worked as a background vocalist. She is billed simply as Marijohn on a few of her recordings. On DOT records, she recorded under the name Romi Spain.
Marijohn Wilkin may be most famous for One Day At A Time (left), often considered the biggest gospel song of the 1970s. Wilkin wrote the song in 1973 with some assistance by her former protégé Kris Kristofferson. The song won a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association in 1975. The song was a top 20 country single for Marilyn Sellars in 1974 and hit No. 37 on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart. It also launched a career as a gospel recording artist for Wilkin, who released several albums on Word Records. A remake became a No. 1 country hit for Cristy Lane in 1980 and has since been recorded more than 200 times. Even though written as a personal worship song, it has also been recognized as “One of the Top 50 Southern Gospel Songs.”
Johnny Duncan and Ed Bruce were among the many songwriters she helped get a foothold in the music business. Kris Kristofferson was in the army with one of her distant cousins, so he sent some of his work to her at Buckhorn, her publishing company. She became the first to publish his songs, notably For The Good Times. In 1970, it became a massive pop and country hit for Ray Price, although my favourite version was by Perry Como. Wilkin is credited for the discovery of Kristofferson and being the first person to give him work as a legitimate songwriter.
Wilkin’s son John “Bucky” Wilkin became the frontman of the 1960s surf rock group Ronny & the Daytonas,(left) whose 1964 debut single “G.T.O.” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. In 1975, Marijohn was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Wilkin formed 17th Avenue Music, a publishing company. It became profitable when its songs were recorded by LeAnn Rimes. In 2005, Wilkin was honoured by the SOURCE organization as a pioneering Music Row businesswoman. This was her last notable public appearance. She died of heart disease in October 2006. Her last marriage was to the record producer Clarence Selman in 1967.
Marijohn´s collaborator on Long Black Veil was the aforementioned Danny Dill, (right September 19, 1924 – October 23, 2008) who was an American country music singer and songwriter. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975.
Dill, born in Clarksburg, Tennessee, got his start as a professional musician while working with Annie Lou Stockard as Annie Lou and Danny, a duet act who performed on the Grand Ole Opry during the 1940s and 50s. Annie Lou And Danny Dill were made members of The Opry in the 1940s. Although Dill recorded as a solo artist, he found his greatest success as a songwriter.
His 1959 tune, Long Black Veil, written with Marijohn Wilkin, was Top 10 country hit for Lefty Frizzell and has become a standard recorded by many country, folk and pop music musicians. Another notable Dill composition was Detroit City (I Wanna Go Home), that was a hit for Bobby Bare, Tom Jones and Dean Martin.
Long Black Veil was first recorded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1959 by Frizzell and produced by Don Law. The song later hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Country & Western chart. At the time, it became Frizzell’s best-performing single in some five years.
The narrator of the story within the song portrays the point of view of a man falsely accused of murder. He’s to be executed. But he refuses to provide an alibi for his innocence. Why? Because, as the song says, he was in the arms of his best friend’s wife.
Telling the public about the extramarital affair would put a scarlet letter on the woman and create such dishonour that the narrator decides to take his fate and die. He would rather take the secret to the grave than admit what he and his love interest (his friend’s wife) have done. The truth, in this case, will not set them free.
According to the lyrics, the song’s narrator explains, someone died near the town hall and the killer looked “a lot” like the narrator, though it wasn’t him.
Sings the narrator:
Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed, ‘neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
That the slayer who ran, looked a lot like me
The judge in the case gives the narrator a chance to set himself free:
the judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die
I spoke not a word, thou it meant my life
For I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife
But to no avail. Honour is held by keeping the secret. The song’s chorus describes the woman mournfully visiting the narrator’s grave, wearing a—yes—long black veil and enduring a wailing wind.
She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me
In the end, the narrator dies.
Oh, the scaffold is high and eternity’s near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But late at night, when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries ov’re my bones
In 2019, Frizzell’s version of the song, which was a departure from his more signature honky-tonk style, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Of the song, its writers have said that they drew on three sources for the track’s inspiration. The first was Red Foley’s recording of the song “God Walks These Hills With Me.” The second was a then-contemporary newspaper report about the unsolved murder of a priest. And the third was the legend of a mysterious veiled woman who allegedly regularly visited Rudolph Valentino’s grave.
“Long Black Veil” is now known as a standard and has been covered dozens of times by prominent artists in both folk and rock music.
Some of the more famous renditions come from The Band, and The Dave Matthews Band (shown here in their 2022 line up), and. Johnny Cash who performed the song on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show in 1969, duetting with Joni Mitchell. Matthews performed it live with Emmylou Harris at a Cash tribute concert. He later performed it on his acclaimed concert album, Listener Supported.
The Band performed the song at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
Long Black Veil is told from the point of view of a man falsely accused of murder and executed. He refuses to provide an alibi, since on the night of the murder he was having an extramarital affair with his best friend’s wife, and would rather die and take their secret to his grave than admit the truth. The chorus describes the woman’s mourning visits to his gravesite, wearing a long black veil and enduring a wailing wind.
In 2019, Frizzell’s version of “Long Black Veil” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant
Wilkin played piano on the original recording by Frizzell. The song was a departure from Frizzell’s previous honky tonk style and was a deliberate move toward the then current popularity of folk-styled material and the burgeoning Nashville sound.
The song was performed by Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 Seeger Sessions Band Tour. The chorus is frequently sung by Bruce Hornsby during live performances of his song “White Wheeled Limousine”, including the version on the retrospective box set Intersections (1985-2005).
On the 2011 album Rancho Alto by Jason Boland & the Stragglers, the song “False Accuser’s Lament” is a follow up to “Long Black Veil”, describing a witness’s view of the events and the role that he played.
Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead performed the song several times, with a variety of musicians, in his rotating line-ups of Phil Lesh and Friends at his venue Terrapin Crossroads. Jamey Johnson has covered the song on tour. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club occasionally perform the song during their live shows. The Black Crowes have covered the song, for instance during their December 17, 2010 performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco.
UK artist Richard Hawley covered the song as a B-side to “Just Like the Rain”.
In fact there have been severl versions of the song that have featured on hit albums.
Tracks on hit albums
- 1962 The Kingston Trio, New Frontier – US Pop album #16 (see our cover photograph at top this page)
- 1962 Burl Ives, The Versatile Burl Ives! – US Pop album #35
- 1963 Joan Baez, Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 – US Pop album #7, UK album #15
- 1965 Johnny Cash, Orange Blossom Special – US Pop album #49
- 1968 Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison – US Pop album #13, US Country album #1, UK album #8
- 1968 The Band, Music from Big Pink – US Pop album #30
- 1970 Joan Baez, One Day at a Time – US Pop album #80
- 1972 New Riders of the Purple Sage, Gypsy Cowboy – US Pop album #85
- 1983 John Anderson, Wild & Blue – US Pop album #58, US Country Albums #3
- 1995 The Chieftains with Mick Jagger (vocal), The Long Black Veil – US Pop album #22, UK album #17
- 1999 Mike Ness, Cheating at Solitaire – US Pop album #80
- 1999 Dave Matthews Band, Listener Supported – US Pop album #15
- 2015 Robert Earl Keen, Jr., Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions – US Pop album #109, US Top Bluegrass Albums 1, US Country Albums #10, US Top Top Independent Albums #6
- 1968 The Move, The BBC Sessions
- 1968 The Wolfe Tones, The Rights of Man
- 1969 The Byrds, Live in Boston 1969, unofficial release
- 1969 The Small Faces, bootleg album, recorded live in Vienna, Austria, on 12 January 1969.
- 1970 Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Kentucky Bluegrass
- 1971 Hank Williams, Jr., Sweet Dreams
- 1971 Marianne Faithfull, Rich Kid Blues, released in 1985
- 1988 The Proclaimers, King of the Road EP
- 1989 The Walkabouts, Cataract (Walkabouts album)
- 1992 Michael Nesmith, Live At The Lone Star Roadhouse, bootleg recording
- 1993 Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Tony Rice, The Pizza Tapes – released in 1999
- 1995 Don Williams, Borrowed Tales
- 2005 Tim O’Brien, Fiddler’s Green 
- 2005 Bruce Hornsby, Intersections (1985-2005) (cameoed in the middle of “White-Wheeled Limousine”)
- 2006 Richard Hawley, B-side of “Just Like The Rain”
- It has to be said that the man who Wild Thing for the Troggs And Jimi Hendrix and I Can´t Let Go for The Hollies and Angel Of The Morning knows about songs that set for perpetuity, so it is no surprise that Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodrgues (right) , she of the flowing fiddle and the mischievious blues voice laidf down what i think is the ultimate recording of this song.
- 2007 Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez Live From The Ruhr Triennale (right)
- 2009 Rosanne Cash (Feat. Jeff Tweedy)
- The Stanley Brothers lent their authentic old timey sounds to their owen recording too.
When a song has been covered by so many diverse acts it is obviously difficult to select a top three. Most of those covers, though fall into the field of Americana with artists such Nick Cave, The Stranglers, Black Crowes and Diesel Park West calling outr from very different genres.
Lefty Frizzell (1959) This is where it all started. Lefty Frizzell’s original version was released in April 1959 and made it to No.5 on the US country chart. Not exactly a barnstorming entrance and certainly not one that would indicate that the song would still be being regularly covered sixty years later. The performance was not typical of a Lefty Frizzell record. He was better known for a more traditional honky-tonk sound than the emerging ‘Nashville Sound’ that ‘Long Black Veil’ tips its hat towards. Can you ever better the original? Well rarely I would say, and in this case probably not, but judge for yourself with the original as your litmus paper.
Johnny Cash (1968) The Man in Black, included the song in his set recorded live at Folsom Prison in 1968. The darkness of the song fits the setting perfectly and although he played and recorded it many times, none have the same spine-tingling edge of the Folsom Prison recording. A year later Cash performed the song as a TV duet with Joni Mitchell which is certainly worth a watch, as is a 1993 live version with Kris Kristofferson, both available on YouTube. Daughter Rosanne Cash has also recorded the song and versions can be found of her playing it with Levon Helm and with Jeff Tweedy.
The Seldom Scene (right, 1990) So why, with the multitude of versions available, would one by a relatively obscure bluegrass band be included here? There are many bluegrass versions of the song from Bill Monroe himself to Robert Earl Keen’s inclusion of the song on his 2015 bluegrass album ‘Happy Prisoner’. The song lends itself to bluegrass particularly well and I know of no better version than the Seldom Scene’s. They recorded the song in 1993 for their ‘Scenic Roots’ album. It has perfect pace, beautiful instrumentation and haunting harmonies. A wonderful version.
I heard a different version of Loing Black Veil almost every week when I was performing with Colin Lever as Lendanear on the folk circuit in the North West of England in the seventies and eighties. It never sounded more haunting than when we heard it played by an artist at The Gallows in Milnrow, what with the song´s subject matter and the name of the venue being so entwined. The great skill of the song to me lies in its avoidance of any time specifics. That story and those lyrics could be set in any time after the fifteenth century and I have always somehow felt that I was born knowing that song, and although I have my ideas of favourite versions to create any kind of list would be to chronicle them in ways that might damage them. At my age, with my dodgy memory, I can´t even remember which was the first version I heard. I do remember thinking at the time it must have been a ´lonesome highway´kind of item from someone like Hank Williams and that was probably written in the nineteen twenties. I don´t remember even when I first learned it was written by Marihon Wilkin with Danny Dill.
In much the same way as Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davis of The Kinks, Long Black Veil is a ninety minute cinema epic written as a three minute song: a dime store-novel in three verses and a chorus.
please note logo The primary source for this article was written by one of my favourite writers, Jacob Iotti, at American Songwriter and we also found information at Songfacts and American UK as well as at Wiki.
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photo npw This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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