On this day in 1993, Nirvana recorded their iconic MTV Unplugged studio performance in New York.
The corresponding live album – MTV Unplugged in New York – was released roughly a year later following Kurt Cobain’s tragic death on April 5, 1994, debuting at the US Billboard 200 number one spot.
This essential long-player has since clocked up millions of sales, making it one of the most influential live albums in recent times while helping to re-popularize the acoustic guitar.
“At that time, Nirvana was probably the biggest band in the US,” C. F. Martin & Co’s Museum and Archives Specialist, Jason Ahner, told Guitarist magazine. “After the folk boom of the '50s and '60s, Martin sales were down in the late-'70s and through the '80s, but we really saw things taking off in the '90s when the MTV Unplugged shows aired.”
While Cobain’s 1953 Martin D-18 (lovingly dubbed ‘Grandpa’) remains in the Martin Museum the 1959 Martin D-18E he used on the MTV Unplugged recordings – an electrified version of the workhorse dreadnought produced for a very short time in the late ‘50s – was sold for a record sum of $6,010,000 last year.
In 1993, who would have known that the guitar Cobain was playing would later smash the world auction record of $3,975,000 held by David Gilmour’s Black Strat?
“This guy representing Lead Belly’s estate wants to sell me Lead Belly’s guitar for $500,000,” says Cobain as he introduces “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – Nirvana’s final number of the set. “I even asked David Geffen personally if he’d buy it for me and he wouldn’t do it.”
Although Cobain credits Lead Belly (1888-1949) for Nirvana’s version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” according to famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax the blues legend learned the traditional American song from folk revivalist Cecil Sharp in 1917.
Lead Belly is known to have recorded several versions appearing under alternative titles including “In The Pines” and “Black Girl.”
Cobain’s MTV Unplugged rendition is haunting. A poignant mix of pain and beauty it is testimony to what greatness can be achieved with little more than an acoustic guitar, some simple chords, and a voice.
Buy Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York here (opens in new tab).
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Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar World (opens in new tab), Guitar Player (opens in new tab) and MusicRadar (opens in new tab) in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.
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