49: Long Black Veil

49: Long Black Veil

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Long Black Veil

Story by Buck Wilkin

Song written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin

Recorded by Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Joan Baez, and others

[Editor’s note: In the 1970s, songwriter Danny Dill told author Dorothy Horstman, “So I said, ‘I’ll write me a folksong’ — an instant folksong if you will. I worked on it for months and then it all came to me. There was a Catholic priest killed in New Jersey many years ago under a town hall light, and there were no less than 50 witnesses. They never found a motive. They never found the man. Until this day, it’s an unsolved murder. Then the Rudoloh Valentino story’s always impressed me — about the woman that always used to visit his grave. She always wore a long, black veil. The third component was Red Foley’s ‘God Walks These Hills With Me.’ I always thought that was a great song, so I got that in there, too. I just scrambled it all up, and that’s what came out.”]

Danny Dill walked into the office with a poem. This was at Cedarwood Publishing, downtown on 7th Avenue, before there really was a Music Row. The staff writers down there were my mom, Mel Tillis, Wayne Walker, John D. Loudermilk, Fred Burch, and Danny Dill. Danny walked in and gave that poem to my mom and she tweaked the lyric a little bit, put a melody to it, and then they did a demo.

The publishers then were almost like the old Hollywood Studios. They were strong and they romanced people for cuts and things like that. This was when the publisher was king.

I saw Rosanne Cash recently on the Don Imus show and she was talking about how this song was on ‘the list’ of classic songs that her dad had given her and, of course, she just released a collection of those. She said it was a love story, a murder mystery, and a ghost story all in one.

A lot of people think it is an old folk song, but it’s not. It was written in 1958. My mom wrote for Cedarwood from about 1958 until 1962 or 1963. She started Buckhorn in 1964. In that one year or two — around 1958 or 1959 — she won several BMI Awards. She had “Long Black Veil,” “P.T. 109,” “Waterloo,” “Cut Across Shorty” — just a whole bunch of songs. The first song that was in the Buckhorn catalog was a song I wrote and sang called “GTO (The Hot Rod Song).” Kristofferson came to town in 1965, and he wrote for Buckhorn.

“Long Black Veil” has probably been recorded 700 or 800 times. Right now, Rosanne Cash’s version is my favorite. She put in a few extra chords and added a nice rock beat to it. That was a nice Christmas present, to hear her sing that song. And times have been a little slow in the music publishing business, too, so when that came out in the fall of 2009, I thought, “This is great. My mom’s alive and well,” and it made me very happy to hear Rosanne’s version. My second favorite version of it is probably the one by Joan Baez. I’ve heard Dave Matthews’ version and I didn’t really get it. But I’m 63, so he is like a punk rocker to me. But I thought, “Well, this is cool. Congratulations, Mom.”

I think it was the biggest song my mom wrote, maybe second to “One Day at A Time.” She had two distinct periods in her life. She went through a period of alcoholism and then she quit drinking and she quit writing secular music after that. She only wrote gospel music after that.

Her dream was to come to Nashville and write music. She was an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s one of those dream-come-true success stories. There were very few women pioneers in that industry and in that era, especially ones like my mom, who was a successful writer and then became a successful publisher, too.

Long Black Veil

Ten years ago on a cold dark night

There was someone killed ’neath the town hall light

There were few at the scene and they all did agree

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

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’s near

She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear

But sometimes at night when the cold wind moans

In a long black veil she cries over my bones


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