The Many Lives of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

Hello and welcome to a small peek into the minds of two humanoids, well actually we aren’t sure about that… (I think we both agree we’re just little beasts), who have recently been through the wringer of English class analysis and have somehow survived unscathed.

Today we have decided to create our own assignment for once (self-empowering, right?) by talking and feeling our way through three versions of the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” which is the combination of two folk songs with unknown origins remains unknown: “In the Pines” and “The Longest Train”. Before we dive in, we want to warn you about the striking eeriness of the song which resonates wonderfully with the spookiest and superior time of the year (excuse the bias, one of us is a Scorpio). 

Given the mysterious nature of this song, we sought to find the three versions with the most vigor. Legendary folk-blues singer, songwriter, and master of many instruments, Lead Belly recorded his take in 1939. Decades later we enter the grunge era where Nirvana delivered a version of the song at their 1994 MTV Live performance, which is a transcending production meant to be watched at least once a week or as prescribed by your doctor. And finally, we find ourselves present day with a completely redefined version recorded by noise pop band Sleigh Bells. 

Before we hop into our music analysis socks, let’s take a look at these goosebump-inducing lyrics. “Where did You Sleep Last Night is in a style known as a murder ballad, which has a twisted history. These kinds of folk songs were a part of a European tradition during the Renaissance period. Transcriptions of murders and rapes were detailed onto pieces of paper and sold to passerbyers on the street. Eventually, the most popular ones were set to music and transformed into songs. Women are often unfairly accused in these murder ballads of making some sort of offense and are told how to behave properly. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” invokes this sense of female subjugation. Its repetition of “my girl my girl don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night” portrays some intense patriarchal vibes. 

Despite the apparent misogynistic narrative, this song evokes some deep soul-shuddering energy that we are able to appreciate. Each version is uniquely shaped by the artist and exemplifies the culture of the time period it was performed in. In the Lead Belly version, the song maintains its folky composition with its long and drawn out melody. He only used one instrument: guitar, adding to the raw element of this version.

50 years later, Nirvana’s rock version takes the song and adds a layer of iciness. Kurt Cobain whispers the lyrics and makes us feel as though we are literally being pulled into the depths of the forest. Toward the end, you can hear how his anguish and desperation intensifies. Cobain’s version feels a lot more personal as if he is voicing his own pain through the song. 

Lead singer of Sleigh Bells, Alexis Krauss revamps the song with a techno twist. She claims power of the divine feminine spirit through her seductive tone. A minute into the song, after “in the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I will shiver the whole night through”, there is a deafening silence, similar to the Nirvana cover, before a rush of omnipotent energy smacks you in the face. 

This was just a toe dip into three interpretations into a song that is continually being reborn. Today, there are up to 200 covers of this song. We advise that you tread carefully into the pines and listen to all covers in one sitting to truly honor this creepy ass song. Thank you for wasting your time with us. 

With peace and love, Des and Grace.

Desert Rose is on the .wav Content Team. Grace Therriault is one of our Art Directors. They both wrote the article & Grace made the graphic.