I haven’t done a post in this series for a long, long time. This one, in fact, began life as a Midweek Music Break — or so I thought — a year ago. But then things happened…
[Image: an interesting excerpt from the 1910 census records for Harrison County, Texas. Click the image to view the whole width of the census page, squeezed into your browser window; click here to see it really enlarged.]
When I heard “Goodnight, Irene” for the first time, I had no idea what I was hearing. It was one of those random drive-by TV moments, back in the early 1980s — the dark middle period of purposeful TV viewing: that period during which you might catch a scrap of something wonderful as you monkeyed with the (circular) channel selector, but if you hadn’t known about the show in advance, well, sorry pal — it was already gone.
The show in question was a PBS documentary about a folk-singing troupe, The Weavers. I didn’t know much about them; they’d peaked in the public eye years before I started paying anything like real attention to music. (Among their founding members, in 1940: Pete Seeger — bottom left in the photo over there, with the banjo. Him, I certainly recognized, but only as a solo performer.) By the time the documentary was made, the surviving members were elderly, and the Carnegie Hall concert it featured would be their last performance together.
So anyhow, the show is playing on the TV. Because I’ve tuned to this channel late in the program, almost the very end, their last song — the bittersweet finale — is almost done. In fact, I catch only the very last chorus:
Good night, Irene
Good night, Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams…
Huge applause from the Carnegie audience; a jumble of emotions fluttering over the faces of the performers.
What a sweet and wistful song, I think to myself. And then for thirty years I forgot all about “Goodnight, Irene.”
In all that time, I knew the song was out there somewhere; those closing lines had stuck in my head, see? But it was gone, until I decided to make it the subject of (so I thought) a Midweek Music Break here…