It’s 5:00 am and I’m lying in bed, wide awake, thinking about what I would do if I were accused of murder and sentenced to die, all because my only alibi would place me having an affair with my best friend’s wife.
It all started this past Sunday when I stopped by the local thrift store to see if they had put out any vinyl or CDs since I had last been there earlier in the week. If possible, I stop in every weekend to see what treasures I might find.
My last few trips to the thrift store have brought me a few interesting LPs and this visit did the same. Buried underneath a stack of dusty classical LPs was a very clean mono pressing of Bobby Bare’s 1966 album, Talk Me Some Sense, still in the original shrink wrap. I happily paid $1 and brought it home excited to give it a spin, mostly interested in hearing his take on Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe.
His Dylan cover was great, but it did not stick with me as much as his cover of Long Black Veil, a song I’ve heard many times by several different artists. On this day though, the lyrics really sunk in and I haven’t been able to get them out of my head since.
The song was written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and tells the story of a man who is wrongly accused of murder and faces the death penalty. The judge gives him a chance to save his life by stating his alibi but the man decides against doing so because on that evening he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. The rest of the song talks about the woman visiting his grave in her long black veil.
Again, I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, most famously by Johnny Cash from his At San Quentin album, and one of my favorite versions by The Band from their LP, Music From Big Pink. But for some reason, Bobby’s version made me stop and think about a couple of things…
First, the main question of course is, what would you do in this situation? Would you keep this affair a secret and sacrifice your life? I doubt it. I’d assume cleaning up the mess from the affair would be a lot better than dying for a crime one didn’t commit. But it’s still a complicated situation to be in and I guess, in this instance, the decision depended a lot on how the man feels about the woman. Is protecting her more important than the man’s life? I assume, in this instance, he isn’t married with his own family because there is no mention of them during the song, meaning he’s willing to die to protect her reputation, not his. After all, the final lyrics state, “Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.” This could be interpreted as nobody knows about her visiting his grave or the affair, but either way, each secret lies with him.
Second, the opening verse states, “Ten years ago, on a cold dark night, Someone was killed, ‘neath the town hall light, There were few at the scene, but they all agreed, That the slayer who ran, looked a lot like me”. It’s the first three words that now bug me, “Ten years ago”. Is the implication here that the crime occurred ten years ago and they are just now accusing the man of the crime? Or was he accused ten years ago and sitting in prison until his death sentence?
If it took them ten years before they accused him, does that mean the affair has lasted ten years? Or was it something that ended many years ago? Judging by the fact the woman wears a long black veil to visit the grave implies it might have lasted longer than just a one time event.
Maybe I’m overthinking all of this and a much simpler thought to digest would find the man telling this story from the grave where the event took place ten years prior to his death.
Regardless, I’m curious why the writers included the ten year time frame and honestly, it could have simply been what sounded best in a song that would turn out to be a country music standard.
For some reason I woke up early this morning thinking this through, so tomorrow I can hopefully sleep in later than 5:00 am and not have these lyrics bouncing around in my head. But this is what a great song should do, right? It should stick with us, making us think about life and consequences.
I can’t let you go without posting two wonderful live performances of the song below. The first is with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson from 1993 and the other is by The Band, performing live in 1983. Enjoy.