Goodnight, Irene

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

"Goodnight, Irene"
Irene Sheet Music.JPG
Sheet music for "Goodnight, Irene" by the Weavers
Song by Lead Belly
Released1943 (1943)
Songwriter(s)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.[1]

Lead Belly's versionEdit

John Lomax recorded a version of Huddie Ledbetter's song "Irene" in 1933, on a prison visit to Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary).[2] These recordings for the Library of Congress included three takes of "Irene".[3]

Huddie William Ledbetter (1888-1949), better known as Lead Belly

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.[4][5][6] 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.[7]

"Irene" has been styled by Neil V. Rosenberg a "folk recomposition" of the 1886 song "Irene Good Night" by Gussie L. Davis.[8][9] Hank Williams connected the melody to the English ballad tradition, via a mountain song he knew as "Pere Ellen".[10] 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.[11] John and Alan Lomax made a field recording of Bob Ledbetter's version of the song.[6]

Lead Belly continued performing the song during his prison terms.[11] An extended version of the song that includes narratives connecting the verses appears in Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly.[12] In 1941, Woody Guthrie used the melody for his New Deal anthem Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.[13]

"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 WeaversEdit

In 1950, one year after Lead Belly's death, the American folk band The Weavers recorded a version of "Goodnight, Irene".[14] It was a B-side track on the Decca label, produced by Milt Gabler. The arranger was Gordon Jenkins.[15][16] It was a national hit, as was the A-side, a version of Tzena, Tzena, Tzena; sales were recorded as 2 million copies.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] The Weavers' lyrics are the ones now generally used. and Billboard ranked this version as the No. 1 song of 1950.[20]


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.[21] Later that same year, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley had a #1 country music record with the song,[22] and the Alexander Brothers, Dennis Day and Jo Stafford released versions which made the Best Seller chart, peaking at #26,[23] #17[24] and #9[25] respectively. Moon Mullican had a number 5 country hit with it in 1950,[26] and a version by Paul Gayten and his Orchestra reached number 6 on the Billboard R&B chart in the same year.[27] Dr. John has a cover in his album Goin' Back to New Orleans.

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.[28]

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.[29]

Leon Russell recorded a cover of the song on his 1973 album Hank Wilson's Back Vol. I.

Other hit versionsEdit

Use in footballEdit

"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.[33][34]

Other usesEdit

In season 1, episode 2 of The Eric Andre Show (2012), Russell Brand (impersonated by Semere Ab-Etmet Yohannes) sings the song during his interview.

In professional wrestling, "Adorable" Adrian Adonis frequently referred to his finishing move—a standard sleeperhold—as "Goodnight, Irene."[35]

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.[36]

In the comic Li'l Abner, the character Mammy Yokum has a "lethal right undercut punch" called the "good night Irene punch".[37]

"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.

In the novel Housekeeping (1980), written by Marilynne Robinson, both Sylvie and Helen sing the 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 introductory "raffle" scene. It is sung in the background by the crowd of people at the raffle, until Booker DeWitt approaches.[38]

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."

See alsoEdit


  • Oliver, Paul (1984). Songsters and saints: vocal traditions on race records. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-24827-2.
  1. ^ Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Big Daddy". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  2. ^ Jr, Henry Louis Gates (2004). African American Lives. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 522. ISBN 978-0-19-516024-6.
  3. ^ Hoffmann, Frank (2016). Chronology of American Popular Music, 1900-2000. Routledge. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-135-86886-4.
  4. ^ The Annals of America: 1929-1939: The great depression. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Incorporated. 1968. p. 371.
  5. ^ Tyler, Don (2007). Hit Songs, 1900-1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era. McFarland. p. 310. ISBN 978-0-7864-2946-2.
  6. ^ a b Pickering, Michael (2017). Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain. Routledge. p. 227. ISBN 978-1-351-57351-1.
  7. ^ Campbell, Michael (2018). Popular Music in America: The Beat Goes On. Cengage Learning. p. 137. ISBN 978-1-337-56037-5.
  8. ^ Neil V. Rosenberg, Review: Lead Belly Reissues as Sound Documentary: From Item to Event, The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 116, No. 460 (Spring, 2003), pp. 219-229, at p. 219. Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of American Folklore Society JSTOR 4137902
  9. ^ "Irene, Good Night", Words and Music by Gussie L. Davis New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1892. Library of Congress Call Number M1622.D, online
  10. ^ Huber, Patrick; Goodson, Steve; Anderson, David Myrwyn (2014). The Hank Williams Reader. OUP USA. p. 331. ISBN 978-0-19-974319-3.
  11. ^ a b Wolfe, Charles K; Lornell, Kip (1999-05-06). The life and legend of Leadbelly. ISBN 978-0-306-80896-8.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Young, William H.; Young, Nancy K. (2008). Music of the World War II Era. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-313-33891-5.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Pollock, Bruce (2014). Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs for the Rock and Roll Era. Routledge. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-135-46296-3.
  16. ^ Jenkins, Bruce (2005). Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins. Frog Books. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-58394-126-3.
  17. ^ Danziger, Meryl (2016). Sing It!: A Biography of Pete Seeger. Seven Stories Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-60980-656-9.
  18. ^ "Goodnight Irene (song by Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra and the Weavers) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  19. ^ "Good Night, Irene". Time magazine. 1950-08-14. Archived from the original on February 6, 2008.
  20. ^ "Number One Song of the Year: 1946-2015". Archived from the original on 2018-04-20. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  21. ^ "Goodnight Irene (song by Frank Sinatra) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  22. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 123.
  23. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories 1890-1954. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research, Inc. p. 21. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  24. ^ "Goodnight, Irene (song by Dennis Day) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". 1950-08-19. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  25. ^ "Goodnight, Irene (song by Jo Stafford) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". 1950-08-26. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  26. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1994). Top Country Singles 1944-1993. Record Research. p. 250.
  27. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-1995. Record Research. p. 167.
  28. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1973). Top Pop Records 1940-1955. Record Research.
  29. ^ "Wake Up Irene (song by Hank Thompson) ••• Music VF, US & UK hits charts". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  30. ^ "Performance: Goodnight Irene by Jerry Lee Lewis | SecondHandSongs". Retrieved 2022-01-03.
  31. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 766. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
  32. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 584. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
  33. ^ "DOWNLOAD GOODNIGHT IRENE NOW!!". Bristol Rovers F.C. 26 January 2011. Archived from the original on 12 March 2011. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
  34. ^ "The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and "Goodnight, Irene"". Pitch Invasion. 16 February 2008. Archived from the original on 7 November 2015. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
  35. ^ Deadrich, Jason (2015-09-23). "Adrian Adonis – Online World of Wrestling". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  36. ^ "Kiss the Girls (1997)". Retrieved 1 April 2018 – via
  37. ^ "Character Profile: Mammy Yokum - Li'l Abner". 2013-06-01. Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  38. ^ "Bioshock Infinite Music - Goodnight, Irene (1932) by Lead Belly". Archived from the original on 2021-12-22. Retrieved 2016-07-26.

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