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Throughout the month of October 1950 Cash Box magazine listed nineteen different versions of this song receiving notable sales, radio plays and jukebox spins… The Orioles version, released mid-way through September, was not one of them.

But while that might indicate it wasn’t very good, it’s also possible that people were simply beginning to tire of hearing the same song done so many ways, which is a shame for The Orioles because this version at least tries something a little different.


Settled Down
Having detailed the origins of this record in its most popular rendition by The Weavers in the Monthly Overview for September 1950 when it topped the charts we can dispense with much of the song’s backstory other than to say that Lead Belly’s original was a lot more spry sounding than most of the pop takes on it that were proliferating the airwaves over the past six months.

For some reason a lot of these versions brought a solemnity to the song, giving it a stately elegance that was supposed to be respectful I guess but more often than not makes it sound more stilted and artificial even when being sung by some of the biggest names in the industry… Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Red Foley & Ernest Tubb, Moon Mullican, Gene Autry, Dennis Day, the Alexander Brothers… the list goes on.

The few that did try and shake things up, Paul Gayten in what do date has been the only rock version and saxophonist Mighty Man Maxwell who turned in a surprisingly good take on it, seemed to realize the familiar melody was a lot more pliable than the majority of artists, producers and arrangers did and as a result they had some fun trying to tweak it.

The Orioles you’d think would be the least likely rock act to get frisky in this regard, as their usual fare of emotional ballads stick to a predictably unambitious template that makes far too much of their repertoire sound like little more than slight variations on a theme. So to find that they, of all people, would be jumping into the deep end of the pool to see if a more irreverent take on Goodnight Irene might find some takers is unexpected if not downright shocking.

What’s more surprising though is that it doesn’t turn out bad at all, in fact it’s really pretty damn good, showing that maybe they’d have been wise to try this approach with material that hadn’t already reached a saturation point.

A Great Notion… No Really, It Actually Is
As the record starts you think you’re in for the same ol’ melodramatic routine with this song… Sonny Til is emphasizing the starkness of the theme, squeezing every last drop of pain he can find into his lines in an effort to draw out the anguish in ways that none of the others managed to approach in their own reverent interpretations.

But along the way you come to realize that he’s intentionally overselling it, turning it on its head by taking from sincere to something which borders on farcical and that switch winds up with a great payoff when the tempo suddenly jumps and he starts riffing on it before handing off to George Nelson who gets a rare expanded vocal showcase in a tune by singing the chorus in double-time while the others add rhythmic vocal support that borders on mockery.

Before any one gets their panties in a bunch over this blasphemy understand that throughout both approaches – the respectful and the disrespectful – it all sounds really good. Til’s voice was at his peak at this stage and the others are clearly enjoying their expanded roles, singing in such an impudent manner compared to his over-emotional reading that it makes this Goodnight Irene sound downright schizophrenic.

The most encouraging aspect of their alarming transformation of the song was the fact The Orioles completely broke out of their own well-worn stylistic box in the process. Hearing them sing with an actual beat and having Alex Sharp answering the others in the chorus with his soaring high tenor while Nelson gets to deliver something more than just a warmed over bridge in a maudlin tempo is something worth celebrating, if for no other reason than it seemed unlikely they’d ever be given the chance to cut loose like this.

That said it’s easy to see why this failed to make a dent commercially, from the glut on the market of the song itself to the fact it deviated so dramatically from The Orioles established sound, but creatively this has to stand as one of their better efforts no matter its reception at the time.


Take A Walk Downtown
Songs had always been viewed as merely vehicles for commercial aims, not a manner of personal expression by the artists which tended to result in a flood of almost identical records on the market at any given time. That so many of these renditions were successful essentially meant that the artists themselves were interchangeable and thus expendable.

Granted the best artists from Bing Crosby on down had the vocal talent, bankable personalities and enough identifiable artistic quirks to make their versions stand out as a step above the mere commoners in the industry, but by the early 1950’s it was telling that more and more it was the unique performances, such as The Weavers with this very song, which were capturing the public’s fancy while the identical by-the-numbers approaches tended to lag behind.

Though it had no success to back up that shift in perception The Orioles’ radicalized interpretation of Goodnight Irene still manages to lay bare the folly of the practice that had long dominated the landscape, personalizing this hoary song into something refreshingly new.

It might rank no higher than twentieth on the list of Irene’s suitors in 1950 according to the trade papers but undoubtedly if she did consent to let them take her out some night she was going to have more fun with the five Orioles than with any one of the other artists bowing and scraping to her in an effort to win her hand.


(Visit the Artist page of The Orioles for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Paul Gayten (July 1950)