Lefty Frizzell, who died young, gets a slice of immortality from the LOC

Lefty Frizzell (Photo: Columbia Pictures promo)

The US Library of Congress selects 25 sound titles each year for special preservation because of their importance to our culture and history. Among the diverse titles selected in 2019 are works by artists like Cindy Lauper, Jay-Z, and Richie Valens. What prompted me to write about this, however, was the induction of Lefty Frizzell, one of the greatest influencers on country music in my lifetime. If you’ve ever heard “Long Black Veil” covered, you can thank Frizzell.

Lefty Frizzell (Photo: Columbia Pictures promo)
Lefty Frizzell (Photo: Columbia Pictures promo)

Frizzell was a superstar in country music. He influenced more musicians than I can name, and even inspired songwriters to pen works about him. The song “Lefty’s Old Guitar” from J.D. Crowe and the New South is but one example.

The LOC annotated the selection of “Long Black Veil” with this:

“Lefty Frizzell was a hard-drinking, hard-living country singer who helped broaden the appeal of honky-tonk music with a string of hits in the early 1950s. In songs such as “If You’ve Got the Money,” Frizzell smoothed out the vocals of honky-tonk while still retaining their vitality. His hits had dried up by the late ‘50s, so Frizzell decided to work with a different music publishing company, Cedarwood. In the spring of 1959, on the same day Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin finished “Long Black Veil,” Wilkin pitched it to Frizzell and legendary producer Don Law. Frizzell wanted to record it immediately even though it was a departure from his style, more folk song than honky-tonk. In “Long Black Veil,” a ghostly saga song, Frizzell portrays a dead man who tells the tragic secret of his execution and about the woman who mourns for him. The recording session included the composer (Wilkin) on piano and the plaintive steel guitar of Don Helms echoing the wails in the lyrics. “Long Black Veil” was not only Frizzell’s biggest hit in years, it became one of his signature songs and a genre-crossing classic, covered by Johnny Cash, Sammi Smith, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, The Band, The Chieftains and dozens more.”

The LOC has provided a list of all the selections made for 2019, complete with background info on each. Other intriguing selections included some of the earliest collections of Yiddish songs, 170 recordings of American Indian languages in the US northwest, and original recordings of the hit Hair.

Frizzell died at the age of 47, His signature guitar was made by Gibson. The LOC list I linked to above is a treasure trove for artists working in all genres. It’s a great resource for inspiration and prompts.

When an artists’ works are selected for the LOC as part of the National Recording Preservation Act, it’s as close to immortality as you can get.

You can hear the original recording of Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” on YouTube.

(Kay B. Day/April 3, 2019)

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