I grew up in the late 50s and 60s listening to the country music of that era. I stuck with country music through the 70s. I made it into the 80s but, by the late 80s, country music as I knew and loved was headed in a direction that, with a few exceptions, I wasn’t interested going. So I didn’t. (Get off my lawn.)
The old west gunfighter and trail ballads, drinking songs, and revenge songs had an influence on me that was, and still is, every bit as strong as the impact Louis L’Amour’s books left with me. My lifelong interest, perhaps fascination bordering on obsession, with everything old west—truth, legends, and myths alike—have roots in those old cowboy and country songs.
I’m inviting you to read along with me this year as I post one or two nostalgic-for-me country ballads on the first Wednesday of each month. I will share a snippet of trivia about each song along with a YouTube video.
Each month, I will include a link back to the previous month’s article as reference to those songs. The common thread that runs among the songs I’ve chosen for this musical memory lane excursion is tragic lost love.
January – Marty Robbins – El Paso and Feleena
February – Faron Young – TheYellow Bandana
March – Willie Nelson and Ray Charles – Seven Spanish Angels
April – Marty Robbins – San Angelo
May – Billy Walker – Cross the Brazos at Waco
June – Billy Walker – Matamoros
July – Marty Robbins – Running Gun
August – Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger
September – Marty Robbins – They’re Hanging Me Tonight
I planned this month’s song specifically for October, since the song has a paranormal slant. The song is [The] Long Black Veil by Lefty Frizzell.
|Lefty Frizzell promo 1957|
Long Black Veil is a 1959 country ballad written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. Lefty Frizzell was the original artist who recorded and released the song.
The story is sung from the perspective of a man who has been falsely accused of murder and has been executed. He declined to provide the alibi that would have exonerated him, because he was having an extramarital affair with his best friend’s wife at the time of the murder ‘neath the town hall light. He chose death over dishonor and took their secret to the grave with him.
The woman mourns his death by walking the cemetery and visiting his grave while wearing a long black veil and enduring the unforgiving, wailing night wind.
This song is equal parts tragic, achingly sad, and otherworldly. Otherworldly, because the singer is dead, and he’s telling their story, which is creepy-fabulous.
Now, hear me out.
I have a theory about the woman and why she visits his grave when the night winds wail. Nobody knows. Nobody sees. Nobody knows but me.
If nobody knows and nobody sees and nobody knows but the dead man, then I say the woman is also dead, and her soul can’t rest because she stood in the crowd at his hanging and ‘shed not a tear’. Her guilt for allowing an innocent man to die, a man she evidently cared about, drove her to suicide.
So why does she wear a long black veil? Maybe she wore a black dress with a long black mourning veil after the man died, and that’s what she was wearing when she died.
But, I do know that ghosts are stereotypically depicted as an entity of flowing, draped, white cloth because, for hundreds and hundreds of years, people were buried in white linen shrouds as the proper care for the deceased and also as an affordable alternative for a ‘coffin’. White shrouds eventually became associated with spirits that can’t rest...aka... Ghosts.
It’s not unreasonable that her eternity outfit included a long black veil.
Back to the song…
Evidently, the man and woman are unable to communicate directly with each other in the afterlife. But, he can watch her visit his grave and walk the hills, and she can visit his grave and walk the hills for all eternity. Almost together, yet always apart.
Country Music Trivia:
Marijohn Wilkin was known as “The Den Mother of Music Row”. She toured with Red Foley, co-wrote ‘Waterloo’ (Stonewall Jackson’s No. 1 country hit), and co-wrote ‘Cut Across Shorty’ and ‘I Just Don’t Understand’ (big hit for Ann Margaret). Most famously, she wrote ‘One Day at a Time’ (big gospel hit of the 1970s).
She was the first to publish Kris Kristofferson’s songs (specifically, ‘For the Good Times’ which was a huge hit for Ray Price). Her son, John “Bucky” Wilkin was front man for the surf rock group Ronny & the Daytonas who had a 1964 hit single with ‘G.T.O.’
Wilkin and Dill said the inspiration behind Long Black Veil came from a Red Foley gospel song called ‘God Walks these Hills with Me’; a newspaper story of an unsolved murder of a priest; and the legend of the mysterious woman who visited Rudolph Valentino’s grave.
Lefty Frizzell’s version of Long Black Veil was selected by the Library of Congress in 2019 for preservation for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.
Image: Lefty Frizzell promotional image attribution by Columbia Records, derived from Public Domain.
Until next time,
writing through history one romance upon a time