Forever: A Louisiana Classic
I’ve always marveled at the longevity of some popular songs. Especially since some click with fans and some do not. It’s so elusive.
I remember reading a comment by Pete Seeger of the American folk band, The Weavers. He said that when their version of “Goodnight Irene” zoomed to the top of the Billboard Best Sellers chart they were absolutely stunned. They never expected it. This enormous success inspired many other artists, such as Frank Sinatra, to release versions of this song. CLICK HERE to hear it for yourself.
THE SOUTH IS A HOT BED OF MUSIC
“Goodnight Irene” was written by Leadbelly, an American folk/blues musician as well as a great songwriter from the south where country, soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll have all found their spiritual homes. Cities such as Nashville, Jackson, Memphis, New Orleans, Knoxville and Chattanooga have all helped to shape the music scene in America.
Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Muddy Waters and Roy Orbison can all be traced back to the bars, clubs and recording studios of the Deep South. And, of course, there’s Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll and his Graceland estate. This will be with us forever.
A FAVORITE: THE “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL”
Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly was born in Mooringsport, Louisiana (late 1880s-12/6/49). He wrote the famous and very moving “Midnight Special” which is, hands down, one of my all-time favorites. The song is about a steam locomotive train that passed the Louisiana state prison. The light from the train would shine into the prison cells. Over time, the prisoners began to believe that, if the “light of the train” shined on one of them – he would gain his freedom.
The song also tells the story of being locked up as a black man and how quick this could happen if you stepped out of line. The lyrics read: “If you’re ever in Houston, well, you better do right. You better not gamble, there, you better not fight, at all. Or the sheriff will grab ya and the boys will bring you down. (And yes, Leadbelly spent time in prison.)
CREEDANCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL
The “Midnight Special” was first commercially recorded in the 1920s and then resurfaced globally when the Creedence Clearwater Revival group recorded it. They started as a garage band when they were teenagers, but after ten years together this California foursome was still struggling. Then, in 1970, they hit it big with a number of songs that included a reworking of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special.” Sadly, after their remarkable success, they could no longer work together and shut down completely two years later.
BUT THE “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL” LIVES ON
Now we’re up to 2018 and the release of a film featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper that we saw at the Kips Bay Theatre on Wednesday, October 17th. We loved every minute of it. Full disclosure: I think I also love the movie’s backstory, too. Cooper was casting “A Star Is Born” and he thought Lady Gaga would be great. He also thought his casting would only work if they could sing together (he had been taking vocal lessons for 18 months).
Lady Gaga asked him if he’d like to sing for her (let’s call it an audition) and he said he’d like to try “Midnight Special” so she started playing the piano – as he sang. Suddenly, she stopped playing and shouted, “Bradley, your voice is incredible. You have a real voice!”
CLICK HERE for my very favorite version of the “Midnight Special.”
UPDATE: In January 2019, Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe Award in the “Best Original Song” category. The song “Shallow” was written for the movie “A Star is Born.” Then she won her first Academy Award for this song at the 2019 Oscars in February.
IN ITS 33RD Y EAR: THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL IS IN FULL SWING FROM MARCH 27 TO 31 – Be sure and take at look at 722 Toulouse Street where Williams once lived and wrote.