Saturday, July 24, 2010

Leadbelly via James Booker via Dr. John: Goodnight Irene

If the above is unavailable here's an alternate version, from a live performance with an audience but no realtime image:

This performance by Dr. John — AKA Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr. — is from 1998's Doc's Homespun Video, a series of so-called instructional videos of the master taking on various New Orleans piano styles. (Most likely what you'll learn, standing in the master's dust, is the breadth of the yawning chasm between tutor and tutee.) If you've heard versions of "Goodnight Irene" more faithful to Leadbelly's original (e.g. the more popularly known version by The Weavers), then you'll notice that none of them sound like this; Dr. John based his take on an arrangement from another Crescent City piano legend, James Booker. Booker pried off the song's original waltz rhythm and jackhammered in it's place a heavy-gauged galloping shuffle. As good as Booker's version is (check it here,, and it is good, it's but a welter in the ring next to this heavyweight.

Dr. J's piano burns like a
Coupe DeVille sized jalapeña. It's clear his pounding left hand wants to make maracas out of your breast bone. The fact that the same left nearly also drowns out the filligrees of the right hand (evidence of Booker's affections for both Erroll Garner and Liberace) is a tribute to the passions of the lyric: The beat rocks like a moonlit back seat rendezvous.The song itself is a curiosity. Originally published in 1896 by an African American songwriter named Gussie Lord Davis, recorded and reworked in 1932 by Huddie "Lead Belly" Leadbetter. As a young man Pete Seeger had met Lead Belly and would be much influenced by him. As a member of The Weavers Seeger would bring "Goodnight Irene" to the masses in 1950 (six months after Lead Belly's death), but not before making a few family-friendly lyrical changes. Among them were the dropping of a verse on taking morphine and changing the chorus from "I'll get you in my dreams" to "I'll see you in my dreams." (Lead Belly claimed his "Irene" was inspired by a 16 year old girl; Cuddly lefty Seeger would choose to keep those dreams a mite, er, drier.)

Certainly, from the Great American Songbook "Goodnight Irene" stands as one of the best. Out of the hands of two of our era's greatest pianists, the teenage minx who may've haunted one man's fevered dreams lives on as a Queen of the Ages.

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