The first time I heard "Long Black Veil" was when I was 17 years old. I was volunteering with the organizing committee for a now-defunct music and arts festival in St John's called Peace-A-Chord. As one meeting at Bannerman Park downtown petered off into a strictly social gathering, the festival coordinator, Jeff, played this song on his guitar. I remember that he played it well, with a particularly soulful tone in his voice which hinted that he was playing the song just as much to impress the attractive women on the committee as much as for his own enjoyment. I knew it was a song made popular by Johnny Cash, but I didn't really know my music history at the time quite as well as I do now. The song was pretty good, but it didn't impact me enough to make me discover more about it.
Now flash forward to this winter when I first acquired The Band's classic debut album, Music from Big Pink. I had no idea that they too covered "Long Black Veil" on this album. And for the first time, I listened to the lyrics all the way through. Everybody in The Band was a great musician and singer, but that song is mortifying to anyone with sane sensibilities. Let's walk through the lyrics, shall we?
Ten years ago on a cold dark night,
someone was killed 'neath the town hall lights.
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed,
that the one who ran looked a lot like me.
Pretty standard scenario for a tragic song. A murder happens and a mistaken identity leads the wrong man to prison and/or the electric chair.
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, though it meant my life,
for I'd been in the arms of my best friends wife.
So on the night of the murder, he's screwing his best friend's wife. So he has an alibi, but it would probably wreck his friendship, so he says nothing. When I realized this was the scenario, I was amazed. The protagonist is so totally indifferent to his friend that he has an affair with his wife, but is all of a sudden respectful and remorseful when he has to admit it. Now that public record is involved, he has so much respect for his friend that he's willing to die rather than humiliate him in public.
Now the schaffold is high, and eternity's near.
She stood in the crowd, and shed not a tear.
But some times at night, when the cold wind moans
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones
And the wife stands there and says absolutely nothing. Forever. Meanwhile, no one has mentioned anywhere in this song that the protagonist's suicidally misplaced machismo has resulted in the actual murderer going free.
And now, the chorus
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 fact, she's so distraught that she makes regular pilgrimmages to the protagonist's grave. He was perfectly happy screwing around with her when there was no public consequence, but ultimately still had more respect for the friend he was betraying than the woman who, judging from these scenes of devotion, had fallen in love with him. But her feelings didn't matter in this situation. The important thing was that he finally did right by his friend. As for the wife, she doesn't factor into this story as anything other than a cause and an awkward situation, never as a person with genuine feelings that mattered.
I can barely listen to this song anymore now that I have once. It's similar to when my friend finally deciphered the lyrics to one of his favourite punk bands and discovered that they were anti-semitic. He couldn't listen to them after that, and couldn't even sell their cds, fearing that someone else might be exposed to what he thought was repugnant. Thankfully, the rest of Big Pink is still awesome.