For a change, Alabamians were watching anxiously for everyone else’s safety as Irene ripped up the Eastern seaboard. Alabamians are used to hunkering down in our safe places with flashlights and batteries, bottled water and a weather radio, waiting for the all clear. So we waited this time, but the memories of April were still with us. I have a daughter in New York, so I appreciated Mayor Bloomberg’s caution.
There is a delicious sweetness in hunkering in the dark during a storm. Routine stops, you call and gather everyone who matters most to you and let go of a frightful number of things that seem, normally, indispensable. So, for a moment, flights grounded, schools closed, ballgames stop, traffic ceases, the world grows still as nature roars its terrible beauty and we wait. It is delicious and sweet because the ache for life is powerful. Anxiety, just enough to give an edge, focused toward listening and being ready. Tomorrow, when the storm passes, not only will we have the euphoria of having survived, but we will also probably see the most beautiful weather in months. We are alive, and it feels good. We have remembered for a moment who matters to us, and what doesn’t matter at all, and it is clear to us.
Storm names are the oddest thing to me. Will I one day kneel in terror as “Hurricane Howard” or “Tropical Storm Myrtle Mae” bear down on me? Weird. We don’t name the tornadoes. They come too quickly and they’re gone. We only give them terrifying numbers: F4 or F3, as though they were aliens dropped on the earth to destroy us. Life and death, so close that we can think about it, not just abstractly.
So, glad it’s over. But it drove me to somber singing this weekend. Thought about old Leadbelly’s song, “Good Night Irene” when some man had painted a hasty sign he nailed to his outer banks property, “GOOD NIGHT, IRENE.” Good night, indeed. And goodbye. We dodged death once more. We are a little more alive, although some didn’t make it. Count our blessings, clean up, and move on.
Had a little time this afternoon, so I recorded “Good Night Irene,” and remembered what a sad and tragic song it really is. It’s odd to see what happened to it. Leadbelly was a convicted murderer in prison who sang well enough to get a pardon or two, but the song is deeply sad, about a broken heart in an early marriage between two young, immature people. The singer struggles with temptation to die, to throw himself into the river and drown. Later mainstream folkies softened and sanitized it. The Weavers’ version sounds like something from “A Mighty Wind.” You can almost see Mitch Miller’s bouncing ball.
No, a good blues song is a serious thing–about life and death and pain and hellhounds. No white picket fences, just the storm of some life, roaring toward you, and the sheer audacity of living when you know you’re going to die sooner or later. Hunker down in a storm shelter, think about love and family and what matters, and your heart starts pouring out. So you sing it and the storm passes and you’re still here, the truth is out there now, in notes and tears, and you can get up and go on a little more, relieved, glad, breathing still. Now that’s a song. So, goodnight Irene. See you in our dreams, fears and all. Good to still be here.