Judy McCulloh When it came time to write a dissertation I settled on this text tune study of “In the Pines” which I still like, which is a sign of a good song I would say. There was some dreadful interpretations of it, mainly in the pop field but in the main, I still love to hear that song and I’m trying to revive it at some of the Bluegrass festivals I go to, mainly down at Bean Blossom, Indiana and there’s a ripple of recognition in the crowd. Bill Monroe had a big hit on that
(Music comes up; Bill Monroe singing “In the Pines”)
Jo Reed: Looking at “In the Pines” why is it that that song has 160 variations, why is it that that song endures?
Judy McCulloh: Well there were 160 variants that I found.
Jo Reed: And that was in 1970.
Judy McCulloh: I think there must be thousands of them out there that simply did not get documented in some way or another and occasionally people still surface who have a non standard version of that in their memories. It’s partly the music, it’s a haunting melody and it’s partly the mystery of the words, the idea of darkness, isolation, the wind whistling through the pines. In some of the variants there’s a story of a very macabre accident with a train where a person, usually a woman gets beheaded and they find her head in the driver’s wheel and they never find her body. This is memorable and it’s one of those very simple sets of lyrics that hint at a story, it doesn’t spill it all out but it’s very mysterious. The combination of a simple but powerful melody and an intriguing lyrics proved too much to forget completely and people do carry it on, it’s more popular in some eras and then less popular but in tradition things do wax and wane that way, even the study of tradition waxes and wanes. A ballad study was once where it was at, ballad and folk tale and now that’s more of an optional study in many places and something else has risen to the top.
In an excerpt from this week's Art Works podcast, McCulloh talks about her first serious folklore project, writing a dissertation on the folk song "In the Pines." [3:13]