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Johnny Cash: The Long Black Veil

Though originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, I consider Johnny Cashs’ version on the seminal live album At Folsom Prison to be the ultimate version of this fine song. Johnny’s deeper, far more somber voice and the stripper-down backing of a single acoustic guitar give the song a gravity and impact neither Left nor Johnny in his other versions of the song, or any other performer of the song for that matter, could match. Johnny Cashs’ studio version on Orange Blossom Special is a far cry from this superb rendition.

The story is simultaneously both ludicrous and impressive; the imagery in the song is strong and most poetic, but when you start thinking about it, the logic in the song is ten types of messed up. The story is essentially simple: it is the story of a man who was condemned to death because he was falsely identified as the slayer of a man, and who refused to give an alibi because he was “in the arms of his best friends’ wife”; the story is told first person ten years after the events took place, by the dead man himself. Especially the last verse is a veritable gem of simple yet effective poetic imagery: “Now the scaffold is high and eternity’s near/She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear/But sometimes at night when the cold wind moans/In a long black veil she cries o’er my bones/She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail”. Seriously, there are few lyrics as good as that in the world, especially combined with the understated, plain and mournful delivery on At Folsom Prison. The little laughter and joke in the middle of the song only serve to accentuate the decidedly dark yet somehow consoling tone of the song.

But on the other hand…

So this guy’s humping his best friends’ wife behind the friends’ back, but is still such a stand up guy that instead of causing his best friend and his less-than-faithful wife sorrow and pain, decides to lose his life? OK, I guess I can dig that, the fact notwithstanding that the best buddy would probably be pretty darn broken about his best friend getting the death penalty. But isn’t the narrator of the song being extremely reckless and inconsiderate to say the least, taking the fall for a murder he didn’t commit and thus letting the killer get off scot free? I mean, what if the killer was a cold-blooded sadistic serial killer and if the narrator hadn’t acted as the fall guy, would have been caught, but because he didn’t he’ll kill and kill again? Isn’t it possible that this one foolish act of not speaking the truth caused a lot more harm and grief than two, maybe three broken hearts? I mean, really, adult people should be able to take this into consideration. Also, what about the wife? Is she really so callous and cold-hearted that she allows her one-time lover to lose his life just so she won’t have to face her husband knowing the truth? She just stands there in the crowd but says not a word? What the heck? What the actual heck is wrong with these people?

OK, jokes aside, The Long Black Veil is a genuine folk classic, though by folk song standards a relatively young song (written in 1959), which collates many murder ballad themes expertly into an effective, even if logically somewhat flawed, narration.