BY FOGGY OTIS | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Written around 1888 by Black songwriter Gussie Lord Davis, “Irene, Goodnight” is a beautifully simple song that adapts very well to the ukulele. Prior to composing the tune, Davis applied to the Nelson Musical College, in Dayton, Ohio, where he was rejected because of the color of his skin. Not to be discouraged, he took a job as a janitor at the school in exchange for music lessons. Davis self-published his songs and employed local printers to produce his sheet music, selling enough copies to earn a profit, and attracting the attention of Cincinnati publisher George Propheter.
In 1886, Propheter expanded his business to New York City, taking Davis with him to Tin Pan Alley. There, Davis garnered attention as both a writer and performer and was eventually recognized as one of the ten best songwriters in America. Touring as a pianist with his own minstrel group, Davis introduced “Irene, Goodnight” to audiences across the country.
The folk-blues legend Lead Belly may have Davis to thank for his song “Irene.” Recorded by musicologist John Lomax in 1933, “Irene” bears some striking similarities to Davis’ song and may have originated from a traveling minstrel show that featured “Irene, Goodnight.” In 1950, the Greenwich Village folk group the Weavers reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts with their rendition of “Goodnight, Irene,” which sold two million copies and became the most popular record of the year.
This arrangement, in the key of F major, is based on Davis’ original version. I have added lullaby-like verses of my own (the second and third), to break up the monotony of singing the same verse over and over. Though I like to play the simple fingerpicked accompaniment shown here in notation, you could instead strum using any basic pattern in waltz time. (See both approaches in the accompanying video.)
During the interlude, I like to do a simple variation on the melody, playing it slightly different on each repeat. As you practice the picking pattern it will become less stiff. Loosen up and have fun with the waltz. Let it take on the feel of a gently rolling lullaby, and before long you’ll find yourself swaying to the music.