|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
John Lomax recorded a version of Huddie Ledbetter's song "Irene" in 1933, on a prison visit to Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary). These recordings for the Library of Congress included three takes of "Irene".
As part of the Federal Art Project that began in 1935, the song was published in 1936, in Lomax's version, as "Goodnight, Irene", a joint Ledbetter-Lomax composition. It has a straightforward verse–chorus form, but is in waltz time. It is a three-chord song, characterised as a "folk ballad" with a three-phrase melody, with provenance in 19th-century popular music transmitted by oral tradition.
"Irene" has been styled by Neil V. Rosenberg a "folk recomposition" of the 1886 song "Irene Good Night" by Gussie L. Davis. Hank Williams connected the melody to the English ballad tradition, via a mountain song he knew as "Pere Ellen". Lead Belly's account was of performing "Irene" by 1908, in a way he learned from his uncles Ter(r)ell and Bob. By the 1930s he had made the song his own, modifying the rhythm and rewriting most of the verses. John and Alan Lomax made a field recording of Bob Ledbetter's version of the song.
Lead Belly continued performing the song during his prison terms. An extended version of the song that includes narratives connecting the verses appears in Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. In 1941 Woody Guthrie used the melody for his New Deal anthem Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.
"Irene" remained a staple of Lead Belly's performances throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 2002, Lead Belly's Library of Congress recording received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Version by The Weavers
In 1950, one year after Lead Belly's death, the American folk band The Weavers recorded a version of "Goodnight, Irene". It was a B-side track on the Decca label, produced by Milt Gabler. The arranger was Gordon Jenkins. It was a national hit, as was the A-side, a version of Tzena, Tzena, Tzena; sales were recorded as 2 million copies.
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 lyrics, leading Time magazine to label it a "dehydrated" and "prettied up" version of the original. The Weavers' lyrics are the ones now generally used. and Billboard ranked this version as the No. 1 song of 1950.
After The Weavers' success, many other artists released versions of the song, some of which were commercially successful in several genres. Frank Sinatra's cover, released 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. The song was sung by Plymouth Argyle supporters for a long time before this and this added to the goading by the Bristol Rovers fans.
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 DeWitt approaches.
Canadian children's entertainer and songwriter 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."
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