“Long Black Veil” was written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. I first heard it on a Kingston Trio LP around 1963. We had a folk group in those days, and in our neck of the woods, deep mountain Appalachia this sort of song touched a central theme of life in the mountains, a dark fatalism.
It’s a dark story of a man who was with his best friend’s wife when a murder took place in the town and “the killer who fled” looked a lot like him, this fella singing this ballad from the grave. He’s not angry at the girl for not stepping forward, nor the real killer who got away scot free. He’s not even beating his chest about how noble he was. It was simply a matter of personal honor which any day can be tested. When Fate tests you, you play the cards you’ve been dealt.
Only mountain people would’ve understood. Maybe even some today. They’d just shake their heads, and mutter “Damn his luck”, or the “Stars shore weren’t right for him that night.”…and then go on about living. Outside of some Balkan villages I’ve seen I can’t imagine people who got up every day where the notion that something bad might happen to them that day was just baked into how their life was framed, a roof cave-in at the mines, a murderer who looked just like a man sleeping with his best friend’s wife miles away. Just that old black cloud.
Then I read Ernie Pyle’s story of the evening they brought Captain Waskow down on a mule in Italy in 1944. My friend Bernie Chumm of Oregon published it at Unified Patriots and here in 2011, and it continues to be one of our most-read posts. A few dozen every week.
The way CPT Waskow’s men treated him as they paid their last respects conveyed that same tired fatalism of this song; no “ain’t fair” tears, no pulling hair, no high dudgeon or moralisms, no shock, just resignation. “Dammit all.”
This “Long Black Veil” song captures that mood, only as an expression of deep-rooted honor, a cross we have to bear just by being Americans, without any “Woe is me’s”.
Just understanding it is one of the things that separates us Deplorables from the herd.
Lefty Frizell was the first to record this, the Kingston Trio brought it to the American college scene, and of course, Johnny Cash. Many others. But I most like this rendition by The Chieftains, an Irish folk group, sent to me by my son, and sung perfectly by none other than Mick Jagger. Go figure.