Long Black Veil

I’ve heard many songs over the years that have made me stop and question what the song lyrics are saying. Is it a double entendre? A double meaning? Could it be two interpretations, with one that is perhaps a bit risque? Maybe the song contains some ambiguity that shades the lyrics in different understandings? It could be simply me hearing something that the author never intended the song to say.

I listened to four albums by Johnny Cash over the last weekend, and one song caught my attention. That song was “Long Black Veil,” a 1959 country ballad written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and initially recorded by Lefty Frizzell. Since then, dozens of cover versions have existed by some very prominent artists, a testament to the quality of the original songs writing. I include this version from The Band whom I enjoy.

The song starts with a murder that occurred on a cold dark night, and the few witnesses agreed that the slayer looked a lot like him. The judge gives the accused the chance to avoid death if he had a good alibi. Although he had proof and a credible person to back it up, he never said a word. Why didn’t he say anything? Because he was doing some horizontal dancing with his best friend’s wife. The song then shifts to the lyrics that give us the song title, “She walks these hills in a long black veil.” The story then turns back to the gallows, the narrator tells us that his best friend’s wife sheds not a tear as he is hung for a murder he did not commit, and she is the only one who knows the truth. But she walks the hills alone on stormy nights when she should probably be at home with her husband if they are still an item.

OK, now, let’s break this down. A guy is on trial for a murder that he did not commit because he was shagging his best friend’s wife at the time. He does not tell the judge, thus becoming the hero for not saying anything and protecting their dirty little secret. And she doesn’t say a word to defend him, hells belles, she doesn’t even shed a tear. How much more cold and heartless can a woman get. And what became of her marriage? I would be curious if my wife took walks in the cemetery in the middle of a stormy night; not suspicious at all, is it. Perhaps, he isn’t part of the story. Maybe she continued her cheating ways, and he dumped her, and she has run out of boyfriends, and in her old age, she haunts the tombstone of one man that she had discarded, and it haunts her.

From the narrator’s point of view, he was a hero for protecting her from the slings and arrows of adultery. I find this problematic because heroes don’t go around humping their best friends’ wives. The woman who visits his grave is a victim, like the guy at the necktie party. She is not a heroine. She humped her husband’s best friend and saved herself by sending him to his death, and she didn’t even shed a tear at the gallows—heartless floozy.

In conclusion, this is not a story of a man unjustly hung for a crime he did not quit, and it is not a song about a woman holding her tongue to protect her marriage. It is a song about a man and a woman committing adultery behind her husband’s back. There are no heroes or heroines in this song. There is only cheating, lying, death, and secrets buried at the top of boot hill, where the guilt and memories of the past are buried and visited by a woman in a long black veil.

Long Black Veil 0102

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
There was someone 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

The judge said, “Son, what is your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.”
I spoke not a word though it meant my life,
For I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

The scaffold is high, and eternity nears
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But sometimes, at night, when the cold wind mourns
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me, nobody knows but me, nobody knows but me.

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