Harry Belafonte and Charles White maintained a longstanding friendship and the singer/civil rights activist owned several of White signature works, including 'Song', a depiction of a singing guitarist. Belafonte had owned the work since at least as early as the mid 1950s, and it appeared in the background of a portrait of the singer and his wife, Julie Robinson, used on the cover of Ebony magazine, July 1957. White had provided illustrations for several publications on Belafonte, so it was no surprise when, in 2001, White’s work (owned by Belafonte) was used on the cover of The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, an extraordinary, ambitious box set that was Belafonte’s brainchild and labour of love.
Between 1961 and 1971, Belafonte sought to create a comprehensive document of what he termed “African-matrixed music”, explained as “African rooted, Africa as origin, evolved from an original African form.” This was an ambitious, almost audacious undertaking, which sought to document and chronicle Black folk and roots music in America from the early 17th century, though to much more recent decades. Over five CDs, musician and singers assembled by Belafonte took the listener from tribal chants, shouts, and spirituals, through to Black music during the long centuries of slavery, on to music emerging from Reconstruction-era urban and rural locales, early 20th century street cries, hollers, folk ballads, blues, and finally, work songs, gospel, and songs of worship. This was truly a remarkable undertaking, complete with children’s skipping songs, playground songs, folk ballads and so on. The collection could faithfully and reasonably be read as a musical history of Africans in America; furthermore, this singular collection reflected the unending and ongoing years of African American struggle and the cultural resilience characteristic of this nation-within-a-nation. The songs across these discs are faithful re-creations that are the product of a stellar and distinguished cast of 50 artists that includes the likes of Belafonte himself, Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Gloria Lynne, and Joe Williams. There was even room within the boxset of CDs for an excerpt from one of Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches. The tapes of these recordings, made over the course of a decade, were dusted off after thirty years, and digitally remastered, to create a fabulous product, of which Belafonte was Executive Producer.
Charles White’s work was indeed a fitting illustration for this undertaking. The work used was ‘Song’, 1952 which, as mentioned earlier in these notes, was in the Collection of Belafonte. Within the materials the formed part of The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, the work was referred to as 'Goodnight Irene'.
Following the release of the box set, The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, those responsible for its release were faced with the unenviable task of distilling the contents of the box set into one 'Best of' CD, which was duly released in 2002. The single CD came with a booklet, the cover of which featured a cropped version of 'Song'/'Goodnight Irene'. The booklet itself also featured, on page 5, a reproduction of White's J'Accuse! #9, though the exclamation mark was absent from the image credit.
Towards the back of the publication there appeared the following information: "CHARLES WHITE Goodnight Irene, by Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979), graces the cover of this collection. White is best known for his charcoal drawings. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Art Students League of New York; and the Taller de Gráfica Popular, in Mexico, where he was taught be Diego Rivera. White worked as an artist in residence at Howard University and served on the faculties of South Side Community Arts Centre, the George Washington Carver School and the Otis Art Institute (Parson's School of Design).
Charles White's artwork has been included in the set designs of Belafonte's television shows. He has created murals for the Hampton Institute, the Chicago Public Library and the Mary McLeod Bethune Library. His works are held in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, Howard University, Syracuse University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Newark Museum
The title of the cover painting is a reference to Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), who popularised the tune "Goodnight Irene" in the early 1900s."
The painting 'Goodnight Irene' (119.4 x 61 cm / 47 x 24 in.), oil on canvas, is now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, purchased 2014.