All hurricanes have names, but this one has its own theme song, and a great one at that. "Goodnight, Irene" is a classic American folk song credited to Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. In the 1950s, the song became a No. 1 hit for The Weavers and has since been recorded by everyone from Little Richard and Frank Sinatra to Bryan Ferry andTom Waits.
Naturally, it's been on the minds of some local musicians and music lovers as Hurricane Irene creeps closer.
"Now bracing for Irene! ... Good-Night!!!!!" veteran folk singer and Norfolk resident Bob Zentz wrote in a Facebook message. "This ain't the end of the world, but ya can see it from here!"
On Thursday, Zentz was making hurricane preparations and heading for Richmond where he was set to play at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum's "Unhappy Hour" concert series.
He figured "Goodnight, Irene" would find its way into his set. "Absolutely, and it wouldn’t be hard to do a re-write of it," Zentz said. "It's a good ol’ Leadbelly song."
As a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, Zentz understands the importance of the tune in American folk circles. It's often used as a set-ending sing-along at folk concerts.
"I've never sung that, but there’s a place I play in Savannah, Ga., where a friend of mine would get all his cronies up at the end of the night, and they would do that song," said Seaford-based songwriter Ron Fetner. Oddly enough, that's not the song that's been playing in Fetner's head lately.
"When I was up on the ladder checking on my gutters today, it struck me that I should do a cover of that song 'Rock You Like a Hurricane,'" Fetner said, referring to the heavy metal hit by the Scorpions. "That would be funny."
Kim Person, a Yorktown musician tied to the 1960s folk music revival, said that "Goodnight, Irene" is beloved for its easy-to-use tune.
"It’s very singable," Person said. "It's a very memorable melody. And the lyric in the refrain is not so terribly difficult to remember. That’s what makes a true folk standard. It makes you feel good when you sing it."
And yet, as is the case with many folk tunes, the lyrics aren't exactly sunny. It's essentially a song of love gone wrong. Maybe that makes it the perfect ode to an potential natural disaster.
"I wish to God I'd never seen your face," goes the version sung by Pete Seeger. "I'm sorry you were ever born. You caused me to weep, you caused me to mourn ..."
The song's sweet, sentimental melody disguises some dark images. Even so, it's a family favorite and critics fawn over Leadbelly's original masterpiece, first recorded by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s.
"It's very difficult to describe Ledbetter's recording of 'Goodnight, Irene,' to those who have never heard it," wrote Barry Weber on allmusic.com, "but to those who have, the conclusion is self-explanatory: Leadbelly's 'Goodnight, Irene' is not only one of his greatest songs, but truly one of the indispensable relics of American music."
Here are the full lyrics to the Pete Seeger version:
Irene goodnight. Irene goodnight.Goodnight Irene. Goodnight Irene.
I'll see you in my dreams.
Sometimes I live in the country.
Sometimes I live in town.
Sometimes I take a great notionTo jump into the river and drown.
I asked your mother for you.
She told me you was too young.I wished to God I'd never seen your face.
I 'm sorry you were ever born.
You caused me to weep. You caused me to mourn.
But the very last words I heard her say
Was, “Please sing me one more song.”
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