“In the Pines” is an evocative traditional folk song with a rich and storied history spanning generations and musical genres. It’s also known by various titles, including “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Black Girl,” and “The Longest Train.” Thought to originate in southern Appalachia in the 1870s, this melody has captivated audiences for over a century. Its enduring appeal is showcased through renditions by artists such as Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers, Lead Belly, Doc Watson (on banjo), Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Nirvana, and, more recently, Fantastic Negrito and Jake Blount.
One of the most famous interpretations of “In the Pines” comes from Lead Belly, the legendary blues and folk musician, whose 1944 recording for the Library of Congress helped to popularize the song and introduce it to a broader audience. Lead Belly’s raw and emotionally charged delivery set the stage for many subsequent artists who tackled this enigmatic classic.
Fast forward a half century, and “In the Pines” experienced a resurgence when the iconic grunge rock band Nirvana included their rendition on the live 1994 MTV Unplugged in New York album. Kurt Cobain’s haunting and passionate performance added another layer of depth to the song’s history.
While bluegrass and traditional country renditions of the song, like those by Bill Monroe or Loretta Lynn, use a three-chord I–IV–V progression, Lead Belly included the bIII chord, which adds a bluesy edge. Nirvana’s take follows this same progression.
The arrangement provided here, inspired by Nirvana’s version, serves as a study of acoustic rock guitar accompaniment. If you’d like to play along with the original Nirvana recording, tune your guitar down a half step. Based in the key of E major, the arrangement features four main chords: I (E), IV (A), bIII (G), and V (B), with an eight-bar progression that repeats throughout.
The notation includes an intro patterned after what Cobain played on the MTV performance, along with two suggested accompaniment patterns. The first is more riff-based, while the second emphasizes straightforward strumming. All three parts demonstrate how pared-down chord voicings can be effectively used in a rock context. Instead of strumming a full open E chord, try playing two- or three-note chunks, and either mute the G string with your first finger or stop that string with your fourth finger at 4 for an ambiguous-sounding E5.
When it comes to the lyrics, you’ll find various versions floating around. Do a Google search to identify commonly used sets and choose the ones that resonate with you the most.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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