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Music

Revisit Nirvana's unplugged cover of a Lead Belly classic

@TomTaylorFO

“If there was no Lead Belly,” George Harrison once said, “there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.” And considering Kurt Cobain once said, “At a really early age, I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star; ever since I got my first Beatles record,” there is an almost fateful symmetry to the fact that a Lead Belly classic became one of the most iconic moments in Nirvana’s legendary unplugged set.

The original track ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, is also known as ‘In The Pines’, is an old folk standard that dates back to the 1800s. It documents the tale of a man who pursues his cheating wife out into the dead of night when he can’t take the turmoil anymore, only to be killed. In an ambiguous twist, it is left open-ended as to whether this was the sad accidental final fate of a hexed man or whether he was, in fact, murdered

While a million different incarnations probably exist in one form or another, it has long been stated that the bluesman Lead Belly (or sometimes Leadbelly depending on where you look) delivered the most definitive version. At least that. was the view held in Kurt Cobain’s eye’s as he introduced the track saying, “This song is by my favourite performer.”

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Cobain left the stage that evening believing that he and the band had bombed owing to the hushed silence of the awestruck audience, but as it happens, the 1993 Unplugged in New York session has entered the canon of live rock shows as one of the most profound there is. Sadly, as we all know, Cobain’s life met with a tragic end, but it has long been speculated if was still alive he may well have made the switch towards performing fully acoustically as he turned towards blues stars of old and leant on the power of stripped-back emotional bravura. 

After the unplugged performance, Cobain would also go on to play the song with his wife, Courtney Live, at Club Lingerie in Los Angeles, later that year. The fact that his Lead Belly homage remained in his set is proof of the poignant impact it had on him, as he would state regarding Lead Belly’s closing deathly howl, “[he sounds] unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.”

The performance is not only spellbinding but a bold artistic move. Typically, the Washington trio wanted to do something slightly out of ordinary from the usual Unplugged performance. Drummer Dave Grohl said: “We’d seen the other Unplugged’s and didn’t like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.” This roaring finale is proof that the acoustic often pairs best with the candid tones of humble sincerity.