‘Goodnight, Irene’ or ‘Irene, Goodnight’ is a 20th-century American folk standard and was first recorded by American blues musician, Huddy ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter in 1933. The lyrics tell of the singer's troubled past with his love, Irene, and expresses 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’.
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 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 several 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 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 the ‘Stores’ chart on June 30, 1950, and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at Number 1 for 13 weeks. Although generally faithful, ‘The Weavers’ chose to omit some of Lead Belly's more controversial lyrics, which lead ‘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. These included Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline of more recent times.
So, you see, not only did confusion reign in the Forde Family as to my second sister’s actual Christian name, but even the song title and its original verses held its own controversy over the years.
Love and peace Bill xxx