My title was chosen as a play on the title of one of Vaughan-Williams’s most loved pieces, Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus”; a piece that is not a set of variations as such, but rather a presentation of five different versions of the same melody collected in various parts of the British Isles.* The way in which folk tunes would appear, in slightly different versions (often as settings for completely different words) in various parts of the country was a source of fascination for Vaughan-Williams and the other composers and musicologists who were busily collecting tunes around the turn of the 20th Century. And of course, these songs did not only remain in Britain. A playground song from the English Midlands, for example, might be borrowed for a sea shanty and then wind up as an Appalachian fiddle tune.
One such tune that, as it were, did the rounds is variously known as I Bid you Goodnight, And We Bid You Goodnight, Sleep on Beloved and The Christian’s Good Night.
I Bid You Goodnight was a favourite number of the great San Francisco group, the Grateful Dead. A brief extract from the song appeared as the closing track on their 1969 album Live Dead (listed on this occasion as And We Bid You Goodnight). And the band continued to play it into the 1990s: it was an ideal song for a band whose concerts would include extended improvisations; its appearance signalling that the evening’s journey was coming to an end (though it was rarely the very last number played). In later concerts, the Dead would increasingly (though not invariably) play a purely instrumental version of the tune.
There are numerous versions available on youtube. You might like to try this one from 1991.
Some sources suggest that the Grateful Dead discovered this song from the Incredible String Band’s 1968 album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter**, which included I Bid You Goodnight as part of a 13 minute long Mike Heron composition called A Very Cellular Song. This whimsical exploration of life, death, eternity and the blissfully uncomplicated love-lives of single-cell organisms can be heard here:
I Bid You Goodnight came to Heron’s attention thanks to a 1964 record, The Real Bahamas Volume One, featuring the guitarist Joseph Spence and the Pindar Family (sometimes spelt Pinder). You can hear a remarkable rendition here – the second of the two songs – spirited, swinging, ruggedly immediate and yet with the most refined musical sensibility at play:
A folk standard, therefore, was born. But the story doesn’t end there. We’ve had three variants. Now for a fourth, which appeared under the title Sleep On Beloved on the 1994 album Waterson: Carthy (for non-folkies, this is a group made up of the great folk singer and guitarist, Martin Carthy, his wife, the singer Norma Waterson and their daughter, singer and fiddler, Eliza Carthy). The Waterson version of the song is quite different to the three that we’ve just heard, lacking the extended sections with the burden (“And I Bid You Good Night”) and the extemporised interjections (“One of these mornings bright, early and fine…” etc). We are, however, left with what is recognisably the same verse. In his sleeve-notes to Waterson:Carthy, Martin Carthy gives a nod to the Incredible String Band and to Spence and the Pindars, and goes on:
“A year or two ago John Howson visited Staithes to record the Fisherman’s choir … a Mr Willie Wright sang a snatch of the Sankey hymn Sleep On Beloved which he described as a lowering down song at funerals, and which was clearly the same song as I Bid You Goodnight but in an earlier form, and when Norma heard it, she went to see Willie, who kindly provided her with the other verses. When we sang the song to Jody Stecher [who had recorded the Spence/Pindar version of the song], he was enormously pleased, not least because its function as a funeral song in the Bahamian fishing community was identical to that in its North Yorkshire counterpart.”
The version on the Waterson:Carthy CD is particularly lovely, but this version is fine, too:
In the four versions that we’ve sampled, the writing credits for the song have been ascribed to Anonymous, or Traditional. It’s nice to think of a folk song as something like a pebble we might find on the beach, its unique shape the result of centuries of waves and weather, or as something handed to dark age troubadours by mysterious visitors from beyond the fields we know. Or, at the very least, as something whose origin is long-forgotten, but which has been handed down through generations of musicians, sharpened by occasional flashes of ingenuity and then softened again by the waywardness of memory, until something unique remains, redolent of the many sculpting hands and ages it has passed through.
Alas, on this occasion we must dismiss these romantic notions, for I Bid You Goodnight has an origin that is clear and disappointingly modern. Indeed, Martin Carthy’s paragraph on the song above does refer in passing to its composer, Ira D Sankey (1840-1908) a singer and evangelist from Pennsylvania. Sankey wrote over 1,200 songs (one of which even found its way into the English Hymnal when Vaughan-Williams was its editor). In 1884, Sankey set to music a poem entitled The Christian’s Good Night by the English novelist and poet, Sarah Doudney (1841-1926), and the resulting hymn almost immediately became a favourite at funerals.
So, a poem by a pious lady in Oxfordshire, brushes up against a melody by an evangelical from the East Coast of America, and eventually finds its way – as a “lowering down” hymn – to a Yorkshire fishing village, where its melody is broadened, and its words loosened up. Eventually this song, broadened and developed further becomes a favourite for lowering-downs in the Bahamas (and dozens of other places besides).In the 1960s, the Bahamian version attracts the attention of song collectors and becomes a favourite from coffee shops in Greenwich Village to packed stadiums in California.
It’s difficult for jaded 20th century ears to hear much that’s appealing in Doudney and Sankey’s original hymn, which is a little on the stolid side. But the four variants referred to here (and there are no doubt many dozens more such variants to be discovered) are each in their way compelling and affecting. The song has become a cherishable human artefact, passed from the hands of fishermen to spiritual jesters, to the greatest of rock music’s innovators. It can be intimate or anthemic. We can dance to it, or weep.
Until the twilight gloom be over past—
Good night! Good night! Good night!
* In fact, it’s a little more complicated than this. In Vaughan-Williams’s own words “These variants are not replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others”.
** This could well be the case, though I’m not entirely convinced. Hangman’s appeared in 1968, which would have left comparatively little time for the Dead to learn it, begin to include it in their sets and issue a version on an album released in 1969.