VERSIONS – “Long Black Veil”

Welcome to another instalment of our (increasingly) popular VERSIONS feature. This time Clint West has a go at ‘Long Black Veil’ – possibly the definition of a ‘country’ staple. That said you will discover all sorts of goodies out there including a reference to a collaboration between Mick Jagger and The Chieftains. Crikey.

When Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin wrote ‘Long Black Veil’ in 1959, they probably had no idea just how enduring the song would be. Since Lefty Frizzell’s original version, it has quite literally been covered by hundreds of artists. It is probably one of the most covered songs in country music. Choosing just three covers was therefore a quite daunting task, especially when considering some of the names that didn’t make the cut. These include such iconic artists as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Band. Whilst most versions are broadly in the country/americana field, you can also find versions by acts as far removed from the genre as Nick Cave, The Stranglers, The Black Crowes and Diesel Park West.

As you might expect, there have also been some absolute howlers too. Check out (if you dare!) versions by Diamanda Galas, The Dave Matthews Band and possibly worst of all, The Chieftains with Mick Jagger. But enough of this frivolity – let’s get down to business.

Lefty Frizzell (1959) This is where it all started. Lefty Frizzell’s original version was released in April 1959 and made it to No.5 on the US country chart. Not exactly a barnstorming entrance and certainly not one that would indicate that the song would still be being regularly covered sixty years later. The performance was not typical of a Lefty Frizzell record. He was better known for a more traditional honky-tonk sound than the emerging ‘Nashville Sound’ that ‘Long Black Veil’ tips its hat towards. Can you ever better the original? Well rarely I would say, and in this case probably not, but judge for yourself with the original as your litmus paper.

Johnny Cash (1968) The Man in Black, included the song in his set recorded live at Folsom Prison in 1968. The darkness of the song fits the setting perfectly and although he played and recorded it many times, none have the same spine-tingling edge of the Folsom Prison recording. A year later Cash performed the song as a TV duet with Joni Mitchell which is certainly worth a watch, as is a 1993 live version with Kris Kristofferson, both available on YouTube. Daughter Rosanne Cash has also recorded the song and versions can be found of her playing it with Levon Helm and with Jeff Tweedy.

The Seldom Scene (1990) So why, with the multitude of versions available, would one by a relatively obscure bluegrass band be included here? There are many bluegrass versions of the song from Bill Monroe himself to Robert Earl Keen’s inclusion of the song on his 2015 bluegrass album ‘Happy Prisoner’. The song lends itself to bluegrass particularly well and I know of no better version than the Seldom Scene’s. They recorded the song in 1993 for their ‘Scenic Roots’ album. It has perfect pace, beautiful instrumentation and haunting harmonies. A wonderful version.

Sean Rowe (2015)  So many artists have gone to ‘Long Black Veil’ as a cover version of choice to include in live sets, without ever formally recording it. Sean Rowes’s sparse version recorded for Pittsburgh’s ‘Yellow Couch Sessions’ is a case in point. I can find no evidence of him having released a version of it, it’s certainly not on any of his albums. Many other artists will have played ‘Long Black Veil’ live, including it in sets or encores, but few will have achieved the beauty or intensity of Sean Rowe’s version here.

About Paul Villers 187 Articles
I am a professional curmudgeon. I don't care and neither should you. Buy me gin and we can possibly be friends.
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Martin Johnson

Great article about a great song. Familiarity certainly does not breed contempt. One small point though, The Seldom Scene are not a relatively obscure bluegrass band. They may be obscure to the wider audience but to any bluegrass aficionado they are bluegrass royalty having spearheaded the increase in bluegrass popularity in the ’70s.

Clint West

Thanks Martin. As you state the term ‘obscure’ was meant in the wider context. For many bluegrass itself is a relatively obscure genre, so even it’s main protagonists are little known.

Paul Mays

I’ve played music with the cousins of Danny Dill. I’m still close with them. Danny’s first cousin’s (Laws Rushing) sons (twins Laws and Dwayne Rushing) are the ones who turned me on to the song. As I was looking for my favorite version I never could find quite find one where the music captured the somber tragedy of the lyrics. This is what I attempted to do with my version.