Goodnight Irene

As Chimesfreedom prepares for Hurricane Irene in New York, we wish others in the hurricane’s path to be safe in weathering the storm. Hopefully, we soon will be wishing Irene goodnight, as in the great song. Unlike the hurricane, “Goodnight Irene” is timeless, so that nobody knows where the song originated. Huddie Ledbetter, i.e., Lead Belly, made the first recording of the song while he was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. His recording is a beautiful, haunting version of the song about the deep sadness of lost love, as the singer tries to warn others to avoid his fate (“Stay home with your wife and family / And stay by the fireside bright”).

Goodnight Irene, Lead Belly

Pete Seeger’s The Weavers helped make the song a national hit in 1950, and there have been numerous covers through the years, including interesting upbeat versions by Fats Domino and by Brian Wilson (the latter is on the tribute CD, Folkways: A Vision Shared (1988)). In the version below, Pete Seeger sings with the great Mississippi John Hurt, who tells a story about getting his first guitar. Then, the group, which includes folk-singer Hedy West (“500 Miles“) and banjo player Paul Cadwell, breaks into playing “Goodnight Irene.”

The above performance appeared on Rainbow Quest, a show Pete Seeger started on a local UHF New York television station in the 1960s. At the time, many television stations feared featuring Seeger, who had been blacklisted because he asserted his First Amendment rights before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fortunately, through YouTube, many more people get the opportunity to see some great performances hidden away at the time. Seeger, who now is a respected sage from a different time, has always been a bit of a hurricane himself.

What is your favorite version of “Goodnight Irene”? Leave a comment. In times of natural disasters, it is always a good reminder to help others by donating to organizations like the Red Cross.

  • Mississippi John Hurt: “Lonesome Valley”
  • Watch Night, Emancipation, and “Mary Don’t You Weep”
  • Fats Domino on “The Perry Como Show”
  • Skip James: “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”
  • Lead Belly: “The Hindenburg Disaster”
  • Pete Seeger: Down By the Riverside
  • (Some Related Chimesfreedom Posts)