First hit #1: August 19, 1950
The more things change, the more things stay the same. If I said a song was criticized for being a sanitized version of a more underground track, you wouldn’t even manage to ascertain what decade I’m talking about, let alone the song. Is it an American Idol cover? Maybe it’s a pop group from the ’90s? ’70s disco cover? Well, naturally, since this thing goes in chronological order we’re still in 1950, and the “dehydrated” and “prettied up” song (according to Time magazine) is Goodnight, Irene.
The song is an old folk tune of indeterminate origin, which is a shame, mostly because it happens to be a really good folk tune and the lyrics have some great turns of phrase. “Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown” is a great line, I don’t care who you are. While the origins are indeterminate, it gained mainstream-ish attention from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who probably improved the lyrics anyway. That leads us to Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers version, which is a pretty sanitized rendition.
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t an extremely dark song. Lead Belly’s version makes Irene a young woman whose mother won’t let her date the singer, while the cover version replaces that verse with something about a couple getting married and settling down. The original lyric works a bit better, and has the song make more sense – I’m not completely certain it’s about someone who just married Irene, or a widower who now is smitten with Irene – but the overall obsession with suicide that’s in the rest of the song remains. It’s somewhere between suicide as an expression of despair and as an aggressive act against Irene. It’s an emotionally complex and quite riveting track, as we’re not sure if the singer is sad or slightly sociopathic.
In that way, the pretty version really works well, in spite of any changed lyrics. The Weavers switch between male and female vocalists frequently and the gloss adds to the charm, but their style still manages to straddle that sad/angry line in ways that I didn’t expect. They give the song honesty, altered lyrics or not. They’re folk artists, and folk songs frequently have not especially pretty sentiment wrapped in a simple, appealing and raw package. That’s why folk is constantly having mini-revivals, and why people still sing the songs. They’re honest, and sometimes honesty is quite ugly. Just in the way they sing it, the Weavers realize this, altered lyrics or not.