Long Black Veil
by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1998
It’s also the song with the most obviously ‘country’ melody and lyric, and has a classic Americana sound and storyline. It is not an old country song at all, and maybe that was part of its appeal to The Band. The song - like much of their work - is a contemporary deliberate creation of a mythologically American piece. It was written by Nashville songwriters Danny Dill (composer of The Streets of Laredo) and Marijohn Wilkin (the writer of Jimmy Dean’s two hits, the JFK-mythologising P.T. Boat 109 and Big Bad John) in March 1959. The Long Black Veil (its full original title) was inspired by the real life murder of a New Jersey priest combined with newspaper accounts of a woman in a black veil who regularly visited Rudolph Valentino’s grave. Dill and Wilkin set out to make it sound like an old Appalachian ballad so as to hang onto the coat tails of the then burgeoning folk music revival. Within days of writing it, they got the then fast-fading country star Lefty Frizell to record the song in March 1959 (with a line-up that included Grady Martin and Harold Bradley on guitars and Marijohn Wilkin on piano). The result was released in May 1959 and the hit record revived Frizell’s career. Other artists have recorded the song, including Johnny Cash, Joan Baez and The Country Gentlemen, but The Band learned the song from Frizell’s original version. The song fits the mood of the album perfectly (it would have fit the next album too).
It’s instructive to compare their version with the Frizell version. Frizell sounds pure country. The accents are in completely different places, the beat is lilting, the drums are played with brushes, and a faint pedal steel plays around in the background. Every hick and hokey technique is on display, from hissing through the teeth on sibillants to a sincere gulp or two when the emotion of the words gets too much.
Then turn to The Band. The sound and words may be country, but on closer examination none of the instrumentation is. Levon slaps the drums with his classic hiccuping sound, this time with a tambourine fixed to the kit. Rick Danko takes the lead vocal with Levon echoing in behind then Richard adding a third layer on the chorus. The acoustic guitar is loud, the organ is prominent and high up, Richard Manuel holds the whole thing together with persistent Wurlitzer electric piano, then the whole thing is underpinned low down both by Danko’s melodic bass line and by John Simon on baritone horn. The instrumental track sounds like nothing except classic Band, but through it all the mood is still the country murder ballad. Danko takes the vocal with as much intensity as Frizell, but Danko is the more subtle actor, though maybe ‘kilt’ for ‘killed’ is over-playing it. He also likes to change voices for the judge’s immortal line, The judge said, "son what is your alibi, if you were someomewhere else then you won’t have to die."
One of Rick Danko’s personal specialities was country music send-ups, and there was always that edge of send-up in it:
The air of send-up (as in Big Bad John) is almost certainly intrinsic and intentional. By the 1990s Long Black Veil had become a regular solo Danko number, and usually he hammed it up for all he was worth. By Rick Danko in Concert (1997) it had stretched to 6 minutes 42 seconds. The last verse is spoken in the mode of Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never. Then there’s another new addition, a semi-spoken bit about a train at the station, and everybody getting the urge to roam (which is a quote from Twilight).
The hit revived Frizell’s career. Co-writer Marijohn Wilkin then recorded an answer disc herself in 1961 with barely changed lyrics as My Long Black Veil (The few at the scene were wrong as could be, cos the man they had killed that night was with me … The scaffold was high, I knew his death was near, I stood in the crowd and shed unseen tears … so there). It has a much less country and more elaborate arrangement, a lot of elaborate strings and thudding bass.
Colin Escott (Sleeve notes to: And the Answer Is … )
Both versions are available side-by-side on And The Answer Is … Great Country Answer Discs From The 50s (Bear Family BCD15793). The And the Answer Is … The 60s compilation is even more fun if you’re into so-bad-that-it’s-good.
Live on video:The Band: Japan Tour and The Reunion Concert in 1984.
Live on Woodstock 25th Anniversary Collection 4 CD set.
Rick Danko in Concert, 1997
They started doing it again live in 1996 / 97, following Rick Danko’s frequent airings on 90s solo shows.
Covered by Mick Jagger with The Chieftains in 1994 with the obvious source as The Band rather than Lefty Frizell.