Nirvana‘s Where Did You Sleep Last Night is not a Leadbelly cover, contrary to popular belief. Not technically anyway, although it is in spirit.

Where Did You Sleep is a traditional southern U.S. folk song that underpins everything we listen to today in roots music and much rock. It has most often been recorded as In The Pines, and can also legitimately be called (The) Black Girl. Leadbelly recorded it by all three titles, which leads to some confusion.

By whatever name, it morphed into folk, blues, country and bluegrass versions, with all kinds of lyrical variations. Some versions have entirely new lyrics, other than the ”in the pines, in the pines” chorus. One major evolution from the tragic murder mystery theme was as an enjoyable train/travelling song.

Its real beauty lies not in its interest to musicologists with their scratchy old acetates, but in its listenablility. I have versions covering all genres, and the newer ones are as good as the old. Thats rarely true of 100-year-old songs. And it sounds like it belongs in each of those genres; in fact folk, blues and bluegrass all count it as their birthright.

As a sampler set, you’ll not go wrong with Gene Vincent, Long John Baldry, Dave Van Ronk, Baird Sisters, Smog (bloody sublime!), Jackson C Frank, Kentucky Colonels, Link Wray and Charlie Feathers. But for me, that Leadbelly stands above ’em all. I love the way his recrafting of the old folk song shows his influence on modern music and its eerie foreshadowing of Kurt Cobain’s angst-ridden delivery.