Released in 1959, the narrative song, “Long Black Veil”, has one of the most chilling narratives of any song of the 20th century. As a result, it’s an all-time classic and a song that many wish they had written themselves.
It’s also one of the most covered country songs of all time (more on that below).
Let’s dive into the history of the song.
The country ballad, which was written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, was originally recorded by country star Lefty Frizzell.
The song was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1959 by Frizzell and produced by Don Law. The song went on to hit #6 on the Billboard Hot Country & Western chart. At the time, it became Frizzell’s highest-charting single in about five years.
The meaning of the story: Murder
The story’s narrator in the song portrays the perspective of a man falsely accused of murder. It must 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 dishonor that the narrator decides to take her fate and die. He would rather take the secret to the grave than admit what he and his love (his friend’s wife) have done. The truth, then, will not set them free.
The set up
According to the lyrics, the song’s narrator explains, someone died near the town hall and the killer looked “a lot” like the narrator, even though it wasn’t him.
Sings the narrator:
Ten years ago on a cold dark night
Somebody’s been killed, under the town hall light
There were few people on the scene, but they were all in agreement
That the killer who ran, looked a lot like me
The judge in the case gives the narrator a chance to break free:
The judge said son, what’s your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die
I didn’t say a word, you meant my life
‘Cause I’ve been in the arms of my best friend’s wife
But in vain. Honor is kept by keeping secrecy. The song’s chorus describes the woman sadly visiting the narrator’s grave, wearing a long black veil and enduring a miserable wind.
She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds moan
Nobody knows, nobody sees
No one knows but me
At the end, the narrator dies.
Oh, the scaffold is high and eternity is near
She stood in the crowd and didn’t shed a tear
But late at night when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries on my bones
The legacy of song
In 2019, Frizzell’s version of the song, which departed from his more characteristic 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”.
About the song, its writers said that they drew inspiration from three sources for the inspiration of the track. The first was Red Foley’s recording of the song “God Walks These Hills With Me”. The second was a then-contemporary newspaper article about the unsolved murder of a priest. And the third was the legend of a mysterious veiled woman who would regularly visit Rudolph Valentino’s grave.
“Long Black Veil” is now known as a standard and has been covered dozens of times by prominent artists in folk and rock music.
Some of the most famous interpretations come from Johnny Cash, Dave Matthews Band and The Band. Cash performed the song on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show in 1969, in duet with Joni Mitchell. Matthews performed it live with Emmylou Harris at a Cash tribute concert. He later performed it on his acclaimed concert album, Supported listener.
The group performed the song at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Check out a number of versions of “Long Black Veil” below:
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images