Angela Recommends: “Goodnight Irene” by Lead Belly

Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson had Sylvie and Ruthie drift in a boat on the lake harmonizing “Goodnight, Irene” — a song like a lullaby of enduring innocence. The characters were depicted in a time not far from Lead Belly yet worlds away: in pine-filled Idaho and not humid Louisiana; in a surface-water world and not in the deep Bayou. A world more like the one I grew up in, sometimes with my dad and sometimes without.

I guess you’re in my dreams

When I was in high school, my mom and her husband moved the family to Blues-infused Fargo, and, in college, it shook me. I had lost track of my dad for awhile and it was a weighty mystery. Not all songs struck a chord to acknowledge that weight. One night, a local musician sang of Irene as if life really were fragile. Guitar echoes filled the bar, the light tilted blue, and taking morphine was a far-off thing; nothing more than an ugly fiction. Walking among bare trees along the Red River in winter was cold on the skin but warm on the belly — similar to the shiver from hearing the woeful song in a dark bar with vodka coursing through my blood.

Sometimes I live in the country / Sometimes I live in town

All my life, I listened to my dad talk about places he traveled and musicians he liked as he sang out samples of their songs. They were often obscure to me — songs from his coming of age in the 50s and 60s. He’d share his internal monologue that was also part amateur opera or community theater. Musicians like the Everly Brothers I knew; Jim Lowe not at all. He could mimic Elvis like nobody’s business. Blues songs never came up.

Stay there by the fireside bright

His songs should have been comforting to him in hospice care, but the iPad they lent him at the VA was too locked down, too set in its ways. Like him. So it didn’t work. However, he mentioned “Goodnight Irene” on one of my visits, and I pulled out my phone and, fumbling, came across a video of Lead Belly singing. Knowing where the song would go, I still somehow managed to sit with him, calmly, singing along with him in raspy voices of our own.

I love her till the sea runs dry

The song rang true. He was taking morphine. He was dying. He had lost love and gained love. Yet we spoke only of the musician and listened to his early, crinkling recording. We were caught on the edge of a gloomy dusk, knowing the sun would still come up without us. He didn’t have much to say to me as he turned toward his ending, but we shared that song; we shared that time. I know where I can find him. Goodnight, Pops, we’ll meet in our dreams.

(Song recommendation by Angela Jones)