Good Night Irene and other songs from the deep south of Ireland A Fictional Functional Family
Goodnight Irene and other songs from the deep south of Ireland
Last Saturday was St Patricks Day. My musical colleague Liz Newton, with fiddle in hand, joined me to entertain the punters in various pubs around the town. Led by Liz's knowledge and skills, we played old jigs and reels, mixed with a dash of my songs and some classic sing-a-long numbers. One of these, Goodnight Irene, was thrown into the set. The response was a surprise. Audiences knew the words. They sang along with loud enthusiasm, swaying to the lure of waltz time. The singing, smiling response from the crowd was stunning. 'Goodnight Irene' clearly reaches the parts that other songs cannot reach.
Introducing the song, I described its most famous performer, Huddie Ledbetter, as being as far from the Celtic tradition, as the southern states of America are from the shores of Ireland. Better known as Lead Belly, he was born in Louisiana in 1888. A measure of time and place can be found in the fact that between 1889 and 1918 some 2,400 African Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs. This deadly response was often prompted by such things as 'boastful remarks,' insulting a white man' or somehow 'acting above their place'. Lynching events were often public community occasions with people dressing in their best and traveling considerable distance to watch.
The last officially recorded lynching in the U.S was in 1968, although in 1998 James Byrd from Jasper Texas died after three white men hauled him behind their pick-up truck with a chain. The brutality of lynching is a reminder that for Lead Belly and his contemporary's life was dangerous. He himself served time for murder and assault, worked as a musician, eventually becoming a favourite of white academics who regarded him as an historical artefact representing a vanishing culture.
A big man, playing a big 12 string guitar, Lead Belly was able to draw on a repertoire of around 500 songs from all genres. He also wrote some 'political' songs that highlighted the lot of Afro-Americans. One of these, called 'Bourgeois Blues' was written after he visited Washington. It contains language that we would deem shocking now but the words provide a perspective on a time when being coloured in American was to be a second class citizen in your own country. The following couple of lines, containing the "N" word make it very clear how Lead Belly, despite his talent and fame was treated. It is powerful stuff and very brave in a time when a black man could die for being 'uppity'.
"Well, them white folks in Washington they know how To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow Lord, it's a bourgeois town
The story of the song Goodnight Irene has an interesting turn to it. Lead Belly never claimed that he wrote the song. He said he learned it from another musician, who in turn heard it somewhere else along a trail that leads back to probable Irish origins. To hear Goodnight Irene with all this in mind shows how a simple waltz melody and lilting lyrics can reach across culture, colour and geography to resonate with listeners on the other side of the world.
Terry Sarten is a musician, writer and social worker. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org