Forest of Dean & Wye Valley


In A.Graham on October 21, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Still sung on the football pitches today, this 1950s hit song was caught up in the McCarthyite phobia of the time. But was it the singers or the song?

The song, Goodnight Irene, performed by the Weavers, topped the British hit parade back in 1950. Yet, today, unless you’re a Bristol Rovers’ fan, it’s now just a distant memory.

Rovers fans at their Eastville ground adopted it as their anthem when it was high in the hit parade – and when the team was going through a successful run in the FA Cup (until they were knocked out by Newcastle United. In those days Newcastle was riding high in the first division, whilst Rovers languished in the old third division south). But over half a century later, loyal supporters are still singing it.

Few of those supporters, though, will be aware of the politics of the time when Goodnight Irene was first sung and recorded in the USA. As the 1950s dawned, anti-Communism was rife in America, and Anti-Red “witch hunts” were the order of day. The “Un-American Activities Committee” chaired by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting a root and branch purge of suspected Communists – and the Weavers were on his list.

The Weavers were a popular left wing music group, formed in 1949. Amongst their members was the legendary Pete Seeger and Lee “Tubby” Hays.

Goodnight Irene had originally been performed by Leadbelly (a black former convict turned folk singer).

His version of the song was much more edgy than the one performed by the Weavers, who removed all references to drugs from the lyrics that they sang.

About that time, the Weavers were signed up by Decca records. It was their big breakthrough – and amongst the songs they recorded was Good Night Irene. It was soon climbing high in the US hit parade, before crossing the Atlantic to Britain.

KOREA – AND ANTI-RED PARANOIA: In June 1950, the Korean war erupted. Suddenly the USA saw itself as being at war with the Communists. The paranoia reached fever pitch, even affecting the entertainment industry. The Weavers had their TV series abruptly cancelled – but, for a while, their songs still topped the hit parade – including Goodnight Irene.

In August 1951, FBI files on the Weavers were leaked – and the group was investigated for sedition. One of their songs, Rock Island Line (recorded in Britain by Lonnie Donegan), was regarded by the FBI as reflecting the Communist Party line!

The music played by the Weavers wasn’t particularly threatening – and certainly those who bought their records weren’t that bothered about any “subversive” content. But the FBI was determined to find “reds” under every stone they turned over.

As the Government-inspired blacklist on the Weavers become public, members of the group found that they were forced to justify their music. In such a hostile climate, it wasn’t easy. Then, in February 1952, a witness appearing before the Un-American Activities Committee testified that three of the Weavers were members of the Communist Party. It was, of course, a lie. But the Weavers were forced to disband.

Two victims of the anti-Communist paranoia at the time were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

They were sentenced to death on a charge of treason – and after a long, worldwide, campaign to save their lives, they were finally sent to the electric chair in 1952. Reportedly they asked to hear Good Night Irene one last time, before they faced their execution.

As a footnote, the song was sung by Billy Bragg at Tolpuddle last year – much to the displeasure of a small group of Bristol City supporters! But no doubt it resonated with Billy Bragg in a way that it doesn’t necessarily with loyal Rovers’ supporters. For them, it’s simply their song!



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