excerpt from http://singout.org):(
My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me —
Tell me where did you sleep last night?
As Norm Cohen notes in Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, the most frequently found elements in “In the Pines” are a verse about a long train, and a line or two about a decapitation. Sometimes there is an accident, sometimes not. Sometimes the accident involves a train, sometimes not.
Sometimes the pines become the central image, in various versions representing solace, pain, innocence, shame, life, death, taboo sex, or pious abstinence. Sometimes a specific crime is identified and the train serves as avenging angel, swooping down to decapitate the sinner. Sometimes the interrogator shifts from first to second or third person. Almost all versions do include some sort of interrogation, and the person being interrogated is always a woman.
That the dialogue takes the form of an interrogation, and begins by assuming a lie, suggests that something sinister as well as violent has happened here. But what? The dialogue hardly explains. The overall effect is one of stumbling onto haunted ground, or a crime scene, or both. Writing in the hefty Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, Alan Palmer puts it this way:
What was the girl doing in the pines? What’s the connection between her being in the pines and the death of her husband? The listener can either safely or tentatively attribute certain states of mind to the narrator (anxiety, possessiveness) and the girl (fear) and can guess at others (guilt)…Is she shivering in the pines because of the death of her husband?
If so, what is the nature of this causation? Is there some element of guilt involved on the part of the woman? It seems unlikely that she was in any way responsible for his death from a train crash, so the most satisfying explanation is that her sense of guilt arises from her being unfaithful to her husband, presumably with the narrator, at the time of his death. In turn, his anxiety may arise from his awareness of the depth of her feelings of guilt and his concern that she may harm herself.
After all, there’s not necessarily a train crash in this song — who is to say that the woman didn’t push her husband onto the tracks? Perhaps in self defense, or just to get rid of him? Perhaps she’s on the lam, literally or metaphorically or both, hiding out in a forest as well as in a spiritual wilderness.
If she is guilty, perhaps she is remorseful, but maybe she is defiant. Perhaps her husband was the adulterer. Perhaps she is a liar, even a murderer. Perhaps the narrator is a man of the law trying to find that out, or a man of God trying to do the same. Perhaps the interrogator is her husband, back from the dead to haunt her and get his ghostly revenge.
If you are a fan of mysteries and thrillers, then you are familiar with the moment when the detectives enter the suspect’s room. Listening to “In the Pines” is a bit like peering into that room and lifting your foot to step across the threshold. You know you’ve found what you’ve been looking for, but you also know that you haven’t yet come close to knowing just what it is.