Stumbled upon during the sessions for Music from Big Pink, Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” featured a darkly gothic storyline that meshed so well you’d never know it was a cover song.
Robbie Robertson was said to have mentioned this 1959 narrative to Rick Danko in passing — and, perhaps to the lasting surprise of those who only knew him as a street-tough rocker in the Hawks, he remembered it well: a death-sentence convict who can’t alibi himself because he was with his best friend’s wife at the time of the alleged crime. It was a stone-cold country classic from Danny (“Streets of Laredo”) Dill and Marijohn (“Big Bad John”) Wilkin, and a world away from anything Danko and Co. had done with Ronnie Hawkins.
Really, though, there was more than a touch of Appalachia in Danko’s Canadian upbringing, perhaps owing to the Simcoe region’s long history of tobacco farming. His was a country-tinged voice uniquely suited to the story-song qualities of “Long Black Veil,” right down to these subtle — but pin-point accurate — changes in timbre as different characters emerge. Danko had such an innate comfort with the track that, into the 1990s, he would trade in the song’s murder-ballad atmospherics for a goofy bit of black humor on stage. Nobody but the lovably approachable Danko could have pulled that off, and he did — night after night.
On the original track, his voice intertwines — first with Levon Helm and then Richard Manuel, who also provides a signature keyboard figure on the Wurlizter — but Danko’s devastating sighs remain the song’s transfixing center point. He’s the very portrait of heartbroken resignation.
Along the way, perhaps because it’s the album’s only non-Bob Dylan cover, “Long Black Veil” has stirred no small amount of debate. Barney Hoskyns, in the terrific Across the Great Divide, suggested that the song — which he called “too literal, too studied” — sounded like “something cooked up by a couple of Nashville hacks.” On the other hand, Greil Marcus shared my view that “it fits perfectly with the rest” in his earlier book Mystery Train.
If anything, after the strange and beautiful mysteries of “Caledonia Mission,” “The Weight” and “We can Talk,” the very straight-forward nature of “Long Black Veil” had a grounding effect. And, whatever its relative worth as a piece of songwriting, this remains one of Danko’s most memorable vocal performances.
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