The Weavers with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra
Writer(s): Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (see lyrics here)
First Charted: July 1, 1950
Peak: 113 US, 14 HP, 110 CB, 16 AU (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Sales (in millions): 2.0 US
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 1.0 radio, 1.82 video, -- streaming
Awards: (Click on award for more details).
About the Song:
Tasked by the Library of Congess with making field recordings, John and Alan Lomax traveled throughout the American South to capture prison hollers and folk ballads. In 1933, they crossed paths with Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, In Angola, Louisiana. He was 42 and serving his third stint in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. SS He “sang spirituals, popular songs, field and prison hollers, cowboy and children’s songs, dance tunes and folk ballads, as well as his own compositions.” NRR As John Szwed wrote, he was “a man with a vast repertoire of traditional material and…such performing flair that he seemed to give off light when he sang.” SS
Leadbelly’s best-known song, “Goodnight Irene,” NRR was used “to open and close most of his concerts, in a conscious attempt to soften his rough-hewn image.” NPR John Lomax and Leadbelly took writing credits on the song, but it actually can be traced to African-American composer Gussie L. Davis, SS who, according to Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, first published the sentimental waltz in Cincinnati in 1886 and again in New York in 1892. JA
Wolf and Lornell say Leadbelly would have learned the song in 1908 in his native Texas from his uncle Terrell. SS He reworked it to “fit his performing needs, accompanied as always by his Stella 12-string guitar.” SS
By the early 1940s, the song “was very familiar to everyone in the folk community.” SS Pete Seeger, of the Weavers, had befriended Leadbelly and knew first-hand the power of the song to captivate an audience. His group’s recording of the song, complete with “violins and other orchestra touches provided by Gordon Jenkins,” SS divided folk purists but made for a monstrously successful commercial recording, hitting #1 in 1950, just months after Leadbelly’s death. Red Foley, Jo Stafford, and Ernest Tubb had top ten versions of the song as well; it has also been recorded by Eric Clapton and Frank Sinatra.
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Last updated 9/8/2021.