A Season of Songs, Day 80: Irene

A Season of Songs is a type of Fun-A-Day project that I plan to do throughout this spring.  I’ll hit shuffle on the ol’ iPod and see what comes up.  I’ll then write a bit about that song, the band, the record, whatever.  Enjoy!

Today’s song is “Irene” by Leadbelly, taken from the “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” CD.

Some times I live in the country
Some times I live in town
Some times I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown

I would have first listened to Leadbelly around 1997 after really getting into Woody Guthrie.  At that time I searched out other artists that recorded with Folkways and Leadbelly was at the top of that list.  The “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” CD was released in 1996 and was volume one of a three volume collection of the recordings that Leadbelly did for the Folkways label between 1941 and 1947.

The legend of Leadbelly is pretty unbelievable.  It goes that as a young man Leadbelly kills a man and is sent to prison.  After serving his minimum sentence he wrote a song for the Governor to influence him to release him.  He successfully gets released.  Later he would end up in prison again after stabbing a man.  While in prison this second time, John Lomax would discover him while traveling to prisons collecting recordings of folk songs.  Lomax would once again use Leadbelly’s musicianship as a tool to get him out of prison.  How much his musicianship had to do in either release is up for debate but the legend lives on.

Leadbelly’s life both before and after prison is pretty interesting and the subject of another book I suggest reading – “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly” by Charles Wolf and Kip Lornell.  It’s been a couple years now since I read it but it gives a good look into this life as a young black man in the south, his run-ins with the law and his attempts to evade the law, and then his career as a musician, specifically his dealings with John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax.  The relationship with the Lomaxes was a tumultuous one that on one hand gave Leadbelly a music career but also left him feeling manipulated and exploited.

“Irene” is one of Leadbelly’s signature songs – really I think this and “In The Pines” are the songs that are most associated with Leadbelly.  It’s just a simple song, 3/4 time, strummed guitar with Leadbelly’s deep vocals over top.  The lyrics are pretty straightforward – he gets married, his marriage falls apart because he’s rambling around, he gets suicidal but then decides he needs to get his act together and fix his marriage.  But who is Irene?  Is Irene his wife who he is saying “I know i’ve lost you, but you’ll always be with me in my dreams”?  Or is Irene the woman he’s been running around with/after, who he now realizes he needs to give up, but she’ll always be with him in his dreams?  Not sure.  I think either interpretation works for me

This alternate version of the lyrics, makes it even more complicated.  The first verse makes it seem like Irene is not his wife because she was too young.  But then the lyrics clearly state that he has a wife and a family.  So is Irene his young love that he continues to pine after and who he blames his ramblin’ ways on?  The last verse doesn’t clarify things – “I loves Irene, God knows I do / Love her till the sea runs dry / If Irene turns her back on me / I’m gonna take morphine and die”.

Apparently a Leadbelly movie was made in 1976.  This is the image they chose for the DVD cover?  No musical instrument anywhere – just a chain gang and a giant shirtless Leadbelly.  It definitely looks more like an action-adventure movie than a tale of a folk music legend.  “YOU CAN’T BURY A BLACK LEGEND LIKE LEADBELLY!”


Weird.  But seriously, Leadbelly’s music is amazing.  If you’ve never spent time listening to Leadbelly, I think the “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” collection is a great starting point, but really any of his recordings will do.


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