Sheet music for "Goodnight, Irene" by the Weavers
|Song by Lead Belly|
The lyrics tell of the singer's troubled past with his love, Irene, and express his sadness and frustration. Several verses refer explicitly 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.
Lead Belly's version
The specific origins of "Irene" are unclear. Lead Belly was singing a version of the song as early as 1908, which he claimed to have learned from his uncles Terell and Bob. An 1892 song by Gussie L. Davis has several lyrical and structural similarities to the latter song; a copy of the sheet music is available here or from the Library of Congress. Some evidence suggests the 1892 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. An extended version of the song that includes narratives connecting the verses appears in Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. "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 Lead Belly's death, the American folk band The Weavers recorded a version of "Goodnight, Irene". The single first reached the Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart on June 30, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1 for 13 weeks. Although generally faithful, the Weavers chose to omit some of Lead Belly'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. Billboard ranked this version as the No. 1 song of 1950.
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. 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 had a number 5 country hit with it in 1950, and a version by Paul Gayten and his Orchestra reached number 6 on the Billboard R&B chart in the same year.
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.
Roots musician Ry Cooder performed a version of the song on his album Chicken Skin Music in 1976, which was released as a single in the Netherlands only, where it failed to chart. Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards played his version with the X-Pensive Winos on his third solo album Crosseyed Heart in 2015.
Other hit versions
- 1959: Billy Williams reached number 75 on the US Billboard pop chart.
- 1962: Jerry Reed reached number 79 on the US pop chart.
Use in Football
"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.
In the 1997 movie Kiss the Girls, featuring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, the song "Goodnight, Irene" plays in the background during the scene in which Judd's character is attacked in her kitchen by the antagonist, a serial killer.
"Goodnight, Irene" is sung as part of a student protest depicted in the 1967 movie Sing a Song of Sex (Nihon Shunka-Kō), directed by Nagisa Oshima.
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 introductory "raffle" scene. It is sung in the background by the crowd of people at the raffle, until Booker approaches.
In the video game Team Fortress 2, the Engineer will sometimes give the response "Well goodnight Irene!" when using a negative voice command, implying he is fed up.
Canadian children’s entertainer and song writer Raffi sang a version of “Goodnight, Irene” on his 1979 album The Corner Grocer Store. In this lullaby children’s version, he described the sleeping locations of various animals in many different environments.
Michael Stanley alluded to the song in his 1973 "Rosewood Bitters," with the lyric "Goodnight, Irene, my dear"; Joe Walsh renders the line in his quasi-rewritten cover of this song as "Goodnight, Irene, goodnight."
- "If It Had Not Been For Jesus", a Christian gospel sung to the same tune, first recorded in 1930 by Blind Willie Johnson
- "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On", a song by Woody Guthrie the tune of which is modified from "Goodnight Irene"
- Oliver, Paul (1984). Songsters and saints: vocal traditions on race records. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-24827-2.
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Big Daddy". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- Irene, Good Night, Words and Music by Gussie L. Davis New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1892. Library of Congress Call Number M1622.D
- Wolfe, Charles K; Lornell, Kip (1999-05-06). "The life and legend of Leadbelly". ISBN 978-0-306-80896-8. Cite journal requires
- Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, Transcribed, Selected and Edited by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936, pp. 235-242.
- Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 1 - Play A Simple Melody: American pop music in the early fifties. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
- "Goodnight Irene (song by Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra and the Weavers) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Musicvf.com. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
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- "Number One Song of the Year: 1946-2015". Bobborst.com. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
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- "Goodnight, Irene (song by Dennis Day) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Musicvf.com. 1950-08-19. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- "Goodnight, Irene (song by Jo Stafford) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Musicvf.com. 1950-08-26. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- Whitburn, Joel (1994). Top Country Singles 1944-1993. Record Research. p. 250.
- Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-1995. Record Research. p. 167.
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- "Wake Up Irene (song by Hank Thompson) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Musicvf.com. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- "John William Narz Jr.* - Sing The Folk Hits With Jack Narz". Discogs. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
- "Dot Album Discography, Part 2 (1955-1960)". www.bsnpubs.com. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
- "Goodnight Irene (song by Ry Cooder)". dutchcharts.nl. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
- Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 766. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
- Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 584. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
- "DOWNLOAD GOODNIGHT IRENE NOW!!". Bristol Rovers F.C. 26 January 2011. Archived from the original on 12 March 2011. Retrieved 12 September 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter
- "The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and "Goodnight, Irene"". Pitch Invasion. 16 February 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
- Deadrich, Jason (2015-09-23). "Adrian Adonis – Online World of Wrestling". Onlineworldofwrestling.com. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- "Kiss the Girls (1997)". Retrieved 1 April 2018 – via www.imdb.com.
- "Character Profile: Mammy Yokum - Li'l Abner". 2013-06-01. Retrieved 2017-03-16.
- "Bioshock Infinite Music - Goodnight, Irene (1932) by Lead Belly". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- "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.