Mudcat Café message #756024 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #8912   Message #756024
Posted By: 12-stringer
28-Jul-02 - 04:53 PM
Thread Name: Origin: Goodnight Irene
Subject: RE: Goodnight Irene Origin
Re: a couple of old postings on this topic:

Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" is certainly not "Goodnight Irene." The tune is the same (with an added chorus) as Rev Andy Jenkins' "Billy the Kid." Jenkins allegedly wrote this song abt 1927, basing it on a book club summary or the dust jacket copy for Walter Noble Burns' novel "Saga of Billy the Kid." It was recorded on 78 by Vernon Dalhart and is often described as a traditional ballad, but it isn't -- it's from the hilljack version of Tin Pan Alley.

Wolfe and Cornell's "Life and Legend of Leadbelly" goes into much detail about the song. There seems no question that Huddie's uncle Terrell Ledbetter learned "Irene" in Texas and taught it to his brother Bob Ledbetter, from whom Huddie got it. (John Lomax recorded Bob in 1940, including a version of "Irene.") A white singer in AR (originally from LA) recorded a song called "The Girls Won't Do To Trust" in Nov 1936 which also uses the "Irene Goodnight" lyrics. This seems to be independent of the Ledbetter versions.

Huddie recorded "Irene" for the LC but those recordings were not generally available to the public at the time. He recorded it on his first commercial session, for ARC, in 1935, but it was not released and the original masters ("Irene," parts 1 and 2) may no longer exist, since they have never surfaced on any of CBS or Sony's later reissues of these sessions.

The first issued recording seems to be on Asch in 1943, but at least 9 radio broadcasts survive from 1941 and 1942 in which Huddie performed this song. It's noted as his "favorite ballad" in a 1935 newspaper interview with Lomax, and Huddie sings it in a 1935 "March of Time" newsreel. On the radio, it was his theme song. So it was unquestionably heard widely before the Weavers record turned it into a pop hit.

The lyrics of the Gussie Davis "Irene" song don't scan at all like the Ledbetter version. Wolfe and Cornell say the melody is similar and theorize that the well-known version is perhaps a recomposition of the pop song. Maybe so. I suspect that it is a mix of Davis' song with a white country ditty from the family of "Ain't It Hell, Boys" or "Late Last Night When Willie Came Home."

I wonder how the guy doing the school project made out?