The Band, “Long Black Veil” from Music from Big Pink (1968): Across the Great Divide

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.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
  • Ms. Billie M. Spaight

    I always loved that song. It is very graphic and every time I heard the song, I could picture this guy’s ghost watching his lover crying by his graveside in the dreary darkness of night. Cover or not, it never mattered to me. It’s spooky and sad. A great song and a great vocal interpretation of it!