Song: "Goodnight Irene"
Album: multiple recordings
Year: various, first in 1934
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If one goes far back enough in the history of music, the wide lines of all genres eventually meet and narrow down to single individuals. It is these elite few musicians who were the true pioneers of music, and without whom, one can argue, music would never have progressed. The names of these giants of music history demand the utmost respect, and when one traces the lines of folk and blues, they lead to one voice, one man, and one name: Leadbelly. Without question, Huddie Ledbetter remains one of the most influential figures in all of music history, and even nearly a century after his recordings, he is still referenced and covered in the modern music scene. Furthermore, when it comes to the term "tragic beauty" within music, there is simply no other artist that better personifies this idea, and there were few artists that "lived" the blues more authentically than Leadbelly. Whether it was the time he spent in jail or the fact that he passed away before ever getting to fully understand just how much impact he had on the world of music, there is a feeling of proximity within his singing that makes his songs some of the most moving and truly heartbreaking sounds to ever be recorded. Though a number of his songs have become standards of recorded music, there is no song that has been re-recorded as many times, or another song that better represents everything that makes Leadbelly the icon that he is, than one can find in his legendary song, "Goodnight Irene."
In reality, there are a number of different recordings of Leadbelly singing "Goodnight Irene," and some of them also feature slight changes in the name. Whether it is listed simply as "Irene" or "Irene, Goodnight," the lyrics and music stay nearly identical. Perhaps the best known versions of the song was the take from when Leadbelly was in Angola State Prison, as well as the version he recorded shortly after his release. On both of these takes, it was fellow legend, Alan Lomax who handled the recording, with the former becoming part of the Library Of Congress archival recordings. The simplicity of Leadbelly's sound has a stark charm to it, and it is on "Goodnight Irene" where one can hear just how closely tied folk and blues were at their start. In many ways, it is the sound found here where one can make the case that the blues are nothing more than a more somber, slightly more structured version of folk music. Within the lone guitar of Leadbelly's recording, one is instantly transported back in time, and you can almost feel the prison walls via the solitary, cold echo from Leadbelly's playing. The low, almost lulling strum of his guitar has a charm to it that must be experienced to be understood, and one would be hard pressed to find a more emotive instrumental performance than that which can be heard on Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene."
However, while his guitar playing is moving in a completely unique manner, it is his voice which be exemplifies the idea of "tragic beauty," and once one hears Leadbelly's sound on "Goodnight Irene," it cannot be forgotten. At points on the song, it sounds like little more than a pained, distressed wailing, and it is in these moments where Leadbelly's singing seems to push into something beyond "just singing." The sorrow within his voice never lets up, and one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the level of true sadness and despair that one can feel within his performance. This tone is reinforced by the simple, yet powerful lyrics by Leadbelly, and it once again proves that straightforward, honest words will always have more impact than clever implications. While there are a handful of verses that appear on some recordings of "Goodnight Irene" and not others, one cannot help but be moved when Leadbelly moans, "...I love Irene, God knows I do, I'll love her till the seas run dry... but if Irene should turn me down, I'd take the morphine and die..." Truth be told, though many have tried, one can easily argue that it is Leadbelly's recording of "Goodnight Irene" that stands as the saddest song ever recorded, and it is without question the epitome of a song that must be experienced firsthand for the level of emotion to be properly appreciated.
Any way in which one attempts to argue the case, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests that Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter was the most influential musical artist of the past century. Whether it is in the fact that his songs remain as poignant and uniquely beautiful all these decades later, or the way in which one can trace nearly every artist since back to his music, it is almost unfathomable to consider that he remains somewhat a "cult" figure in the overall history of music. Within his unparalleled recorded catalog, there are few songs that better represent his sound or the true spirit of American music than one finds in "Goodnight Irene," and over the years, it has been covered hundreds of times, from artists ranging from Tom Waits to The Weavers to Frank Sinatra. To have such a wide-ranged and long lasting impact in itself is a testament to the simple brilliance that one can find in nearly all of Leadbelly's recordings, and the fact that he was able to achieve such heights so long before decent recording equipment was available only adds to his legend. Standing as one of the few early performers that was a direct link to the traditions and roots of folk music, one can argue that his songs straddle the line between folk and blues, therefore making him one of the few performers to which quite literally all music can be traced. Though every one of his recordings is absolutely essential to the development of music, there is perhaps no other song in history that stands as important to the progression of popular music, nor a song that is as perfectly sorrowful as one can find in Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter's iconic recording, "Goodnight Irene."