Listen to Mark Lanegan and Kurt Cobain duet on ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’

Back in February, the music world lamented the passing of grunge forefather Mark Lanegan. The eminent singer-songwriter first raised eyebrows in the mid-1980s as the frontman of The Screaming Trees, an early Sub Pop grunge outfit based in Washington State. While they maintained a small cult following through the remainder of the decade, their seminal work is now seen as having paved the way for the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who took grunge to the global arena in the 1990s.

As the ‘80s drew to a close, Lanegan began working on his debut solo effort, The Winding Sheet. The album, released in 1990, departs from the heavy electric sound of The Screaming Trees while maintaining its grungy atmosphere thanks to the weight of Lanegan’s coarse, poignant vocals.

Anyone listening to the record for the first time today might draw comparisons between The Winding Sheet and Nirvana’s famous MTV Unplugged sessions. This connection, as it happens, is stronger than you might think. For the album’s defining moment, a cover of Lead Belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ was recorded in collaboration with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on electric guitar and backing vocals and Krist Novoselic on bass.

The recording sessions took place in 1989 following Nirvana’s tour in support of Bleach. Over this period, Cobain spent much of his time with Lanegan in Olympia, Washington, listening to old blues records. “One afternoon at his place, we started talking about making a record,” Lanegan wrote in his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. “‘We should do a record of this stuff,’ one of us suggested. And then the other, ‘We should do a record of all Lead Belly covers.’”

“Being pals was easy but creating together turned out to be more difficult as our respect for one another turned it into an oddly unproductive exercise,” Lanegan continued. “Neither Kurt nor I were really willing to grab the reins. Despite being the least musically proficient member of Screaming Trees, it had become obvious to me early on that I had to be the default leader of the band, simply due to force of personality. I was used to directing Screaming Trees recording sessions … I couldn’t bear to do that in this situation, I was too awed by Kurt’s genius.”

After a few jam sessions, the duo abandoned their tentative plan for a blues cover album, but their completed cover of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ made the cut for Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet a year later.

Dave Grohl once described The Winding Sheet as “the most beautiful record” in a conversation with Melody Maker. “It’s a Sunday morning, acoustic, soulful blues record. The guy has so much soul and the most beautiful voice. You imagine this is what your heart would sound like if it could sing, it’s so fuckin’ beautiful. This album came out just after I moved to Seattle, so to me, it represents that whole time. Mark sang for the Screaming Trees, so he had his flipside, but there was also a lot of appreciation in Seattle at that time for the purity and truth of real music.”

As Nirvana gained global allure into the ‘90s, following the release of Nevermind, Cobain kept this grunge re-imagination of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ alive with a handful of live performances. But most memorably, Nirvana added the song to the setlist for their era-defining MTV Unplugged appearance in 1993.

In a 1996 interview with Rolling Stone, Lanegan said he was stunned by Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged version. “His version of that song is the definitive version — it blows mine away,” he said. “One of the coolest things that ever came from hanging with Kurt was just sitting in his shed and hearing him play acoustic guitar and singing. To me, it sounded like what I imagined it would be like if I was sitting in the room with Skip James or Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was so soulful and real, it gave me the chills.”

Listen to all three versions of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ below.

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