Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Song of the Week: Leadbelly and Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night?


On November 18, 1993, Nirvana took the stage in New York for an intimate acoustic evening to be filmed for MTV. The band was in its last throws of life as Kurt Cobain would commit suicide just 5 short months later. The band was at the end of their US tour in support of the criminally underrated album, In Utero. I had seen them on one of the first dates of that tour. Front row, center in Denver, Colorado. They were amazing. Cobain stared down at the first few rows for the first half of the show. Then, about half way in to the show, as he stepped back from the microphone to take one of his famously spartan guitar leads he looked up at the entire audience. About 1500 people in all. I remember getting an odd feeling at that moment. He looked as if he was going to be sick as he nervously closed his eyes and exhaled a huge sigh. He stepped back to the mic and took another quick pensive glance at the whole room. The rest of the show he performed like a 13 year-old boy trying to work up courage to ask the girl in the blue dress at the other end of the gymnasium if she would like to dance with him. This was a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. About the worst thing possible, I imagine. And on this night in New York, a few months later, he didn't look too much more comfortable. That night, Nirvana, as was their want, added a ton of songs they rarely if ever performed. Mostly covers of songs by the Meat Puppets, Bowie and The Vaselines. And the closer that night was a cover as well. A traditional American folk song called Where Did You Sleep Last Night (in the Pines). It was a highly impassioned performance that varied surprisingly little from the version by folk-blues artist, Leadbelly. It is the closing verse where Cobain shines with his raspy voice wailing away with sadness as he sings "I will shiver the whole night through". For most it would be the last time they would see Cobain perform and his final plea rings all the much more ghostly for it.

Leadbelly did not write the song (as Nirvana generously credited in their publication of the song), as the song probably dates back as far as the Civil War. But he did record the song as early as 1944 just a few short years before his own death. Unaccompanied (and by himself), Leadbelly plays Where Did You Sleep Last Night? with the scary precision of a man who, himself, knew of murder and life in prison. "My girl, my girl, don't you lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night?" Leadbelly's asides fit his cool demeanor perfectly. This is not, like Cobain's version, a man who is driven by emotion. This is the story of a cool level headed killer being interrogated: "My husband was a hard working man, 'till a mile and a half from here. {What happened to him?} His head was found in a driver wheel, but his body ever never be found."

1 comment:

  1. Nirvana's was my introduction to the song. In fact this MTV production was my introduction to Nirvana for the most part. This one and Lake of Fire were the ones that grabbed me at the time. The Man Who Sold the World also caught my attention. Listening tonight to an MTV rehearsal of the Bowie tune I'm struck by how well it's suited to Cobain.