Sheet music for "Goodnight, Irene", by the Weavers.
|Written by||Huddie Ledbetter|
|Original artist||Lead Belly (1932; 1949)|
|Recorded by||The Weavers (1950)
Frank Sinatra (1950)
Red Foley & Ernest Tubb (1950)
Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)
Johnny Cash (1958)
The Originals (1966)
The Kingston Trio (1969)
Little Richard (1972)
Ry Cooder (1976)
Meat Puppets (1994)
Tom Waits (2006)
Deer Tick (2009)
Eric Clapton (2013)
The lyrics tell of the singer's troubled past with his love, Irene, and express his sadness and frustration. Several verses make explicit references to suicidal fantasies, most famously in the line "sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown," which was the inspiration for the 1964 Ken Kesey novel Sometimes a Great Notion.
The specific origins of "Irene" are unclear. Lead Belly was singing a version of the song from as early as 1908, which he claimed to have learned from his uncles Terell and Bob. An 1886 song by Gussie L. Davis has several lyrical and structural similarities to the latter song; however, no information on its melody has survived. Some evidence suggests the 1886 song was itself based on an even earlier song which has not survived. Regardless of where he first heard it, by the 1930s Lead Belly had made the song his own, modifying the rhythm and rewriting most of the verses.
Lead Belly continued performing the song during his various prison terms, and it was while incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that he encountered musicologists John and Alan Lomax who would go on to record hours of Lead Belly's performances. A few months prior to his release in 1934, Lead Belly recorded a number of his songs, including "Irene", for the Library of Congress. "Irene" remained a staple of Lead Belly's performances throughout the 1930s and '40s. However, despite popularity within the New York blues community, the song was never commercially successful during his lifetime.
In 1950, one year after Leadbelly's death, the American folk band The Weavers recorded a version of "Goodnight, Irene." The single first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on June 30, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1. Although generally faithful, the Weavers chose to omit some of Leadbelly's more controversial lyrics, leading Time magazine to label it a "dehydrated" and "prettied up" version of the original. Due to the recording's popularity, however, The Weavers' lyrics are the ones generally used today. The Weavers' enormous success inspired many other artists to release their own versions of the song, many of which were themselves commercially successful.
Frank Sinatra's cover, released only a month after The Weavers', lasted nine weeks on the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on July 10, peaking at #5. Later that same year, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley had a #1 country music record with the song, and the Alexander Brothers, Dennis Day and Jo Stafford released versions which made the Best Seller chart, peaking at #26, #17 and #9 respectively. Moon Mullican also had a country hit with it in 1950.
The song was the basis for the 1950 parody called "Please Say Goodnight to the Guy, Irene" by Ziggy Talent. It also inspired the 1954 "answer" record "Wake Up, Irene" by Hank Thompson, a #1 on Billboard's country chart.
Selected list of recorded versions
- 1950 The Weavers
- 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis
- 1959 Chet Atkins (album: Hum & Strum Along with Chet Atkins) 
- 1960 Jim Reeves
- 1961 The Brothers Four (album: Songbook, released 1961)
- 1962 Nat King Cole
- c. 1964 Mississippi John Hurt (album: Last Sessions, released 1972)
- 1965 Les Paul and Mary Ford
- 1964 Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix (album: Little Richard Is Back (And There's a Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On!))
- 1966 The Originals on Soul Records
- 1968 The Irish Rovers (album: All Hung Up)
- 1969 The Kingston Trio (album: Once Upon a Time)
- 1971 John Sebastian (album: Cheapo-Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live John Sebastian)
- 1972 Mitch Miller and the Gang (album: Mitch Miller's Greatest Sing Along hits)
- 1973 Leon Russell (album: Hank Wilson's Back (Vol. 1))
- 1976 Sensational Alex Harvey Band (album The Penthouse Tapes)
- 1976 Ry Cooder (album: Chicken Skin Music)
- 1976 James Booker (album: Junco Partner)
- 1979 Raffi (album: Corner Grocery Store)
- 1986 John Koerner (Album: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been)
- 1986 Michelle Shocked (album: The Texas Campfire Tapes)
- 1987 Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band (album: Ragged But Right)
- 1988 Brian Wilson (album: Folkways: A Vision Shared - A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly)
- 1989 Maureen Tucker (album: Life in Exile After Abdication)
- 1992 Kevin Ayers (album: Still Life with Guitar)
- 1992 Half Man Half Biscuit
- 1992 Dr. John (album: Goin' Back to New Orleans)
- 1993 The Chieftains & Willie Nelson (album Another Country)
- 1994 Meat Puppets (EP: Raw Meat)
- 1995 Jimmy Buffett from his release Margaritaville Cafe: Late Night Gumbo
- 1999 Kelly Joe Phelps (album: Shine Eyed Mister Zen)
- 2002 Bryan Ferry (album: "Frantic")
- 2002 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring Willie Nelson and Tom Petty (album: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III)
- 2004 John Martyn (album: On the Cobbles)
- 2005 Bill Frisell (album: East/West)
- 2005 George Winston (album: Montana - A Love Story)
- 2006 Tom Waits (album: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards)
- 2006 Ronnie Drew (album: There's Life in the Old Dog Yet)
- 2006 Tony Duggins (album: Undone)
- 2007 Shivaree, (album Tainted Love: Mating Calls and Fight Songs)
- 2007 Band from TV, with Hugh Laurie doing piano and vocals (album Hoggin' All The Covers)
- 2009 Deer Tick, secret song (album: Born On Flag Day)
- 2011 Brian Fallon from The Gaslight Anthem (album: The Revival Tour 2011 Collections)
2011 (Shades of Blue ) from their 2011 release ( album: "Do Right by Me")
Use in soccer
"Goodnight Irene" is sung by supporters of English football team Bristol Rovers. It was first sung at a fireworks display at the Stadium the night before a Home game against Plymouth Argyle in 1950. During the game the following day, Rovers were winning quite comfortably and the few Argyle supporters present began to leave early prompting a chorus of "Goodnight Argyle" from the Rovers supporters—the tune stuck and "Goodnight Irene" became the club song.
The 1993 Moxy Fruvous recording "The Drinking Song" includes a reference to Goodnight, Irene:
Sang a few bars of some pretty old song.
Irene good night. Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I'll see you, in my dreams.
"Goodnight Irene" makes an appearance in the 2013 video game, BioShock Infinite (which is set in 1912), during the "raffle" scene where the winner of the competition gets to throw the chosen numbered baseball at a captive mixed-race couple. It is sung in the background by the crowd of people at the raffle, until Booker approaches. 
In the PC game Team Fortress 2, the Engineer will sometimes give the response "Well goodnight Irene!" after getting a "Revenge Kill" or at the start of a "Sudden Death" match.
- Oliver, Paul (1984). Songsters and saints: vocal traditions on race records. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-24827-2.
- Wolfe, Charles K; Lornell, Kip (1999-05-06). The life and legend of Leadbelly. ISBN 978-0-306-80896-8.
- Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 1 - Play A Simple Melody: American pop music in the early fifties. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu.
- The Weavers' "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
- "Good Night, Irene". Time magazine. 1950-08-14.
- Frank Sinatra's "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 123.
- Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories 1890-1954. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research, Inc. p. 21. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
- Dennis Day's "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
- Jo Stafford's "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
- Whitburn, Joel (1973). Top Pop Records 1940-1955. Record Research.
- Hank Thompson's "Wake Up, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
- "Goodnight Irene".
- "Mitch Miller's Greatest Sing Along Hits - Mitch Miller". discogs.com. Retrieved 2014-07-03.
- "DOWNLOAD GOODNIGHT IRENE NOW!!". Bristol Rovers F.C. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
- "The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and “Goodnight, Irene”". Pitch Invasion. 16 February 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
- "Bioshock Infinite Music - Goodnight, Irene (1932) by Lead Belly".
- "'Battlestar Galactica's' Ron Moore addresses the shocking developments of 'Sometimes a Great Notion'". Chicago Tribune. January 17, 2009.
- "Good Night Irene" - lyrics and midi on RienziHills.com Retrieved on 2009-08-10.
- Recording of "Good Night Irene" in .ram (Real Audio Metadata) format on LeadBelly.org (The first verse of Good Night Irene is also played on the Intro page of LeadBelly.org without requiring the Real Audio download.) Retrieved on January 7, 2012.
- The Originals Biography
"Mona Lisa" by Nat King Cole
|U.S. Billboard Best Sellers in Stores number-one single
August 19–November 11, 1950
"Harbor Lights" by Sammy Kaye
|Cash Box magazine best selling record chart
September 2, 1950–November 4, 1950
"I'm Movin' On" by Hank Snow
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number one single by Red Foley - Ernest Tubb with The Sunshine Trio
August 26, 1950 - September 2, 1950 (two weeks)
"I'm Movin' On" by Hank Snow