Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene"

It could be reasonably argued that the commercial boom in American folk music really began not with the Kingston Trio's 1958 hit "Tom Dooley" but rather nearly a decade earlier in 1949 when the Weavers topped the Billboard charts with "Goodnight, Irene," which was #1 for three weeks and on the list for 25. As most know, the politics of the era did the Weavers in (after two more #1s, "Tzena, Tzena" and "On Top Of Old Smoky," both in 1950), and the Kingstons had a more sustained commercial career and a significantly greater effect on popular music in America. Also as we'll see, the KT came out of the gate with a more authentic fake folk sound :) than did the Weavers.

But throughout their long and honored career, members of the Kingston Trio always acknowledged the Weavers as the greatest of American folk groups. Founding member Bob Shane has said this repeatedly, as did the recently departed Nick Reynolds, and Shane acknowledges in his introduction to "Goodnight, Irene" on the Once Upon A Time album that the group started doing out "everything" by the Weavers - a fact that any fan of the latter group already knew from the selections on the KT's first two albums.

It was a personal delight for me to find a Kingston Trio performance of this Huddie Ledbetter classic on OUAT because it had always been one of my favorite Weavers songs (and Ken Kesey's, I'd guess, since he took his novel's title Sometimes A Great Notion from the lyric here), and I'd bet that the original Trio noodled around with it years before they waxed it on that last album.

Huddie Ledbetter, who styled himself Lead Belly, was a complex and fascinating figure. Born the son of slaves in 1888 in Louisiana, he became a virtuoso musician on the twelve string guitar and the accordion and reportedly could acquit himself well on the tenor banjo as well. A man of volatile temperament, he served at least three significant hitches in penitentiaries in Texas, once for theft, once for attempted murder, and once for manslaughter after he killed a cousin in a knife fight over a woman.

It was while in prison that Lead Belly learned and refined many of the songs associated with him (like "The Midnight Special" and "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" and "Cane On The Brazos") and where folk song archivist John A. Lomax discovered and began to record him, boosting Ledbetter into a musical career which kept him on the straight and narrow after his release unit his death in 1949 (after the Weavers' hit) at age 61 from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Lead Belly never claimed to have written "Goodnight, Irene," saying that he learned it from an uncle, who may have learned it from his own grandmother. Whatever its origins, it is from Lead Belly and his friendship with Lomax (and Lomax's connection to Pete Seeger) that we know the song today. Here's The Man Himself doing the song:

Amazingly good audio quality for a 1944 recording.

Now here is the Weavers' million seller - the Gordon Jenkins string version - hence my comment about the original Weavers recordings not sounding very folky - give it fifteen seconds or so:

As an antidote - here's how they really sounded - we can overlook the suits, no? It's 50s television, after all:


I think you'll find fidelity to both the Weavers and Lead Belly in the Kingston Trio's version, clearly an homage to Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert. They give it more of a rousing treatment than the earlier group, but as with many a rousing number, it works perfectly for the Trio:

Now for some latter day versions. I hope everyone knows Ry Cooder, folk instrumentalist extraordinaire. I've always thought that one of Cooder's strongest assets (beyond amazing ability on a variety of mostly stringed instruments) is the thoughtfulness of his arrangements. Here is Cooder from the 80s with a group called the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces, which includes among others Van Dyke Parks:

Who better to close with than Willie Nelson, whose county-bluesy voice is perfect for this song:

This video occasionally gets yanked from YouTube. Let's enjoy it while we can....

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