Goodnight My Dear Sister
Author: Bahamian Traditional
Date/Studio: 2013 Synergy, Port Townsend, WA
Engineer: Neville Pearsall
Producer: Robert Force
Original Release: Did You (BSR151)
Current Release: Did You (BSR151)
I earned (not a typo!) this tune from Charlie Berg (Coffeehouse of Glory). His way of singing was very much in the manner of what I later discovered was the idiosyncratic style of Bahamian blues guitarist, Joseph Spence. His odd phrasing and gravelly voice gave a sense of immediacy to the song. I loved it when Charlie would get to, “I remember quite well, I remember quite well” -- and nothing was remembered. It was a statement, not an intro. And when he sang about walking in Jerusalem just like John, the song “came home”. It was something to own and be, not to just describe.
Like a lot of tunes I learned from Charlie I could never tell if that was the way the song actually went or if he had patched it together from pieces of other tunes. Frankly, I didn't care. I was never much of a folk-purist that way. Did the song reach into me and describe an experience to which I could relate? This tune certainly did and was part of my songbag for most of my musical life-- but never performed.
Over the past few years it worked its way into the tunes I would share with folks around the campfire or during late night jams at festivals. Turns out this was a song people wanted to learn. By then it had entered my repertoire with a manner my earliest producer, Bill Tootell, called, “my crooner voice.” For me it was a sweet song and I wanted to sing it sweetly, a lullaby.
In the 60s, 70s and 80s songs passed freely between players. We played what we liked and shared what we played. In the 90s, especially with the burgeoning of the internet, intellectual property rights became a big concern. Folk festivals had to pay special licensing fees to protect them just in case a performer played something that was not one of their own originals or in the public domain. In workshops they could show folks chords to a tune but not write down or hand out the words to a tune.
That was one of the reasons I never disseminated Goodnight. I thought it had come from the Incredible String Band's repertoire since that was the only other place I had heard it. When I got ready to make the Did You cd I decided I liked the tune so well it was time to pay whatever copywrite it had and put it on the disc anyway. That's when the internet came to help me instead of hindering.
I traced the tune. Yes, the String Band had done it but so had the Grateful Dead. There are dozens of their performances floating around the net since they often used it to close their shows. It is probably their touch that brought it to Charlie. Many other “name brand” performers have recorded it. I found out it WAS in the public domain, tracking it to the Bahamas, the Pindar Family and Joseph Spence.
I found out more. The Pindar tune, I Bid You Goodnight, is also known as Lay Down my Dear Brother/Sister, Sleep on Beloved and other variations, including, now, mine. The earliest reference I found was from the Cokesbury Hymnal. That source attributes the lyrics of, the Christian's Good Night, to Sarah Doudney, 1871. Other sources note that the song was sung at “lowerings” (burials).
It probably ended up in the Bahamas as the result of missionaries. During this migration it acquired a cultural overly, adopting the “shout it out” gospel tune style of adding impromptu “call and response" lyrics. Many of these "witnessing" verses have their roots in Revelations 13 (the beasts at the end of the world) also in the 23rd Psalm (valley of the shadow of death) and other admonitions that call upon us to fear the Lord and stay on the straight and narrow.
Since I sing it as a lullaby, I wanted kids to go to sleep, not to be scared awake. After I discovered that the song inserts Bible verses, I decided to end by quoting from Psalm 37:34, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way” to which I added my own ending, “Rejoice in the coming of another day!”