“The Long Black Veil,” one of country music’s all-time classics, was written to stand the test of time.
Although it seems like the seminal classic “The Long Black Veil” is one of those mythological songs, sung around campfires during the Great Depression, handed down from hobo to hillbilly, father to son over generations, nothing could be farther from the truth.
“The Long Black Veil” is certainly timeless, a folk standard that is just as comfortable on stage at a rock & roll concert as it is in the back of a dim bar in Nashville. But it was crafted deliberately with that goal in mind.
In early 1959, the American folk music revival was in full steam. Artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly were garnering attention for their protest songs and political views. Although much of the attention was negative, it attracted people to the type of music they were making. Later that year the Newport Folk Festival would debut the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Songwriters Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill were not blind to the direction that popular music was headed. Wilkin had previously written songs for Wanda Jackson and Stonewall Jackson while Dill has received credit for “The Streets of Laredo.” With the current trends in mind, Dill set out to write a folk song that sounded like it came right out of the hills of Appalachia and would stand the test of time. He succeeded.
Dill, the lead writer, called on three sources of inspiration for his new song. A newspaper article about a priest in New Jersey who was killed under a streetlight while witnesses looked on may have been the song’s genesis.
Dill then paired the story with another legend about a mysterious woman who visited the grave of Italian film star Rudolph Valentino; the veiled woman would lay a single red rose on his grave every year. This was later revealed to be a publicity stunt.
Finally, Dill drew his chorus from the traditional song “God Walks These Hills With Me.”
He brought what he had to Wilkin and together they molded the song into the story we know today: a man is hung for refusing to provide an alibi on the night of a murder because he didn’t want to betray that he was sleeping with his best friend’s wife.
The song was given, surprisingly, not to a folk singer, but fading country star Lefty Frizzell. The recording peaked at number six and revitalized Frizell’s career.
Cash cut it for his album Orange Blossom Special; it would also feature on Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Many critics consider Cash’s version the definitive one, and some point to his duet with Joni Mitchell.
Interestingly, the song used to be used as a legal reference when accepting guilty pleas in court whereas it wasn’t enough to admit guilt, evidence had to prove it as well, to avoid situations such as that in “The Long Black Veil.”