Goodnight, Irene

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"Goodnight, Irene"
Irene Sheet Music.JPG
Sheet music for "Goodnight, Irene", by the Weavers.
Song by Lead Belly (1932; 1949)
Written 1908
Published 1934
Language English
Form Waltz,
Folk song
Writer Huddie Ledbetter
Language English
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)

"Goodnight, Irene" or "Irene, Goodnight," is a 20th-century American folk standard, written in 3/4 time, first recorded by American blues musician Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter in 1933.

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 and a song of the same name from John Mellencamp's 1989 album, Big Daddy, itself strongly informed by traditional American folk music.[1]

Lead Belly[edit]

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.[2]

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.[2] "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 2002, Lead Belly's 1936 Library of Congress recording received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.


In 1950, one year after Leadbelly's death, the American folk band The Weavers recorded a version of "Goodnight, Irene."[3] The single first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on June 30, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1.[4] 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.[5] Due to the recording's popularity, however, The Weavers' lyrics are the ones generally used today. Billboard ranked this version as the No. 1 song of 1950.[6]

The Weavers' enormous success inspired many other artists to release their own versions of the song, many of which were themselves commercially successful across several genres. 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.[7] Later that same year, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley had a #1 country music record with the song,[8] and the Alexander Brothers, Dennis Day and Jo Stafford released versions which made the Best Seller chart, peaking at #26,[9] #17[10] and #9[11] respectively. Moon Mullican also had a country hit with it in 1950.

On the Cash Box chart, where all available versions were combined in the standings, the song reached a peak position of #1 on September 2, 1950, and lasted at #1 for 13 weeks.[12]

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.[13]

Selected list of recorded versions[edit]

Use in soccer[edit]

"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.[17][18]

Other uses[edit]

In professional wrestling, "Adorable" Adrian Adonis frequently referred to his finishing move—a standard sleeperhold—as "Goodnight, Irene." [19]

In the novel 'Housekeeping' (1980), written by Marilynne Robinson, both Sylvie and Helen do sing this song several times.

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.[20]

Dee hums "Goodnight Irene" in an episode of Battlestar Galactica.[21]

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.


  1. ^ Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Big Daddy". 
  2. ^ a b Wolfe, Charles K; Lornell, Kip (1999-05-06). "The life and legend of Leadbelly". ISBN 978-0-306-80896-8. 
  3. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 1 - Play A Simple Melody: American pop music in the early fifties. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. 
  4. ^ The Weavers' "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
  5. ^ "Good Night, Irene". Time magazine. 1950-08-14. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Frank Sinatra's "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
  8. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 123. 
  9. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories 1890-1954. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research, Inc. p. 21. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  10. ^ Dennis Day's "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
  11. ^ Jo Stafford's "Goodnight, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
  12. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1973). Top Pop Records 1940-1955. Record Research. 
  13. ^ Hank Thompson's "Wake Up, Irene" Chart Position Retrieved July 1, 2012.
  14. ^ Jazz Edition, Quadromania (4 CDs), Judy Garland, Over the Rainbow, 2005, Membran (CD 3).
  15. ^ "Goodnight Irene". 
  16. ^ "Mitch Miller's Greatest Sing Along Hits - Mitch Miller". Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  17. ^ "DOWNLOAD GOODNIGHT IRENE NOW!!". Bristol Rovers F.C. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  18. ^ "The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and "Goodnight, Irene"". Pitch Invasion. 16 February 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Bioshock Infinite Music - Goodnight, Irene (1932) by Lead Belly". 
  21. ^ "'Battlestar Galactica's' Ron Moore addresses the shocking developments of 'Sometimes a Great Notion'". Chicago Tribune. January 17, 2009. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"Mona Lisa" by Nat King Cole
U.S. Billboard Best Sellers in Stores number-one single
(Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers version)

August 19–November 11, 1950
Succeeded by
"Harbor Lights" by Sammy Kaye
Preceded by
"Mona Lisa" by Nat King Cole
Cash Box Best Sellers number-one song
(Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers version)

September 2, 1950 – November 4, 1950
Succeeded by
"Harbor Lights" by Sammy Kaye
Preceded by
"I'm Movin' On" by Hank Snow
Best Selling Retail Folk (Country & Western) Records
number one single
(Red Foley - Ernest Tubb with the Sunshine Trio version)

August 26, 1950 - September 2, 1950 (two weeks)
Succeeded by
"I'm Movin' On" by Hank Snow