Originally posted October 17, 2009:
Preparing Wednesday’s post, I heard something in the Walkabouts’ “Murdering Stone” that linked it to two much older songs, one a country rock touchstone and the other a classic tale lodged firmly in country music. I’m still not entirely certain what it was I heard (beyond the obvious preoccupation with mortality) that linked the Walkbouts’ 1993 song with Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen” and with “The Long Black Veil,” a tune recorded by a long list of performers. The more I’ve thought about it over the last two days, however, the more I think that those songs share a thread of some sort that runs from 1959, when Lefty Frizzell recorded a hit version of “The Long Black Veil” through 1969, when “Two Hangmen” was released on Mason Proffit’s Wanted, into 1993, when “Murdering Stone” provided what I hear as the center of New West Motel.
I imagine if I ponder the question some more, I’ll find links to earlier songs and other songs in the country and country rock idioms. Or I might find that the chain, whatever it means, stops – or, more aptly, begins – at “The Long Black Veil.” As I mentioned Wednesday, the song was written for Lefty Frizzell by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, and Frizzell’s 1959 recording of it went to No. 6 on the Billboard country chart. Since then, the song has been a staple of the country repertoire and a fixture as well in the country rock and Americana songbooks.
Greil Marcus, in his book Mystery Train (subtitled Images of America in Rock ’N’ Roll Music), calls “The Long Black Veil “a modern country tune in the guise of an old Kentucky murder ballad.” One can infer from his writing that he believes the theme of the song – a theme that he says is woven deep into all of Music From Big Pink, The Band’s debut album on which the song appears – is “obligation: a kind of secret theme at the heart of both words and music. What do men and women owe each other? How do they keep faith? How far can that faith be pushed before it breaks?”
He continues: “Certainly ‘Long Black Veil,’ the only song on the album written neither by the Band nor Bob Dylan, takes obligation as far as it can go. A murder has been committed; a man is singled out from the crowd as a culprit, but he will not give up his alibi, because he’s ‘been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.’ She keeps silent as well. The singer, the man accused, owes something to his lover, something to his friend, and something to his community, to justice; the woman won’t injure her husband by revealing the secret, and she keeps faith with her lover as he goes to the gallows – allowing him to die with his friendship intact, and then forever haunting his grave.”
Marcus goes on to note that one of the song’s writers, Danny Dill, later told country music historian Dorothy Horstman that the song was inspired by bits and pieces: by “The Lady In Black” who appeared annually at the grave of silent film idol Rudolph Valentino; by the song, “God Walks These Hills With Me,” written by Red Foley; and by an old news item about the unsolved murder of a priest in New Jersey, killed with more than fifty witnesses under the town hall light.
On the most simple level, “The Long Black Veil” is a story song, the tale of a secret threatened by coincidence and kept through sacrifice. It doesn’t take a lot of listening, though, to find Marcus’ theme of obligation, an obligation extended to tragedy and stoic heroism in the song through the keeping of commitments both implicit and explicit.
I found Lefty Frizzell’s version on an LP titled Lefty Frizzell’s Greatest Hits, and an online discography verified that the version on the LP is the same recording that was issued as a single in 1959. The Johnny Cash version was ripped from his 1965 LP Orange Blossom Special, and The Band’s version comes from the remastered CD, released in 2000, of 1968’s Music From Big Pink.
Here, then, are your Saturday Singles:
“The Long Black Veil” by Lefty Frizzell, Columbia 41384 
“The Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash from Orange Blossom Special 
“Long Black Veil” by The Band from Music From Big Pink