Lead Belly

(Good Night) Irene

Composed by John A. Lomax / Lead Belly

Song Review by

There are very few songs in the history of American popular music that have had the lasting impact of "Goodnight Irene." Made famous in the early 1950s by the folk quartet The Weavers, "Goodnight Irene" has since become an all-time international standard. Ironically, by the time the Weavers' version had reached #1 on the charts, the man who had made the song his signature ballad, Leadbelly, had already died of Lou Gerhig's disease. Though Leadbelly (a.k.a. Huddie Ledbetter) did not live to see the song he had popularized with local folk audiences become a national hit, it is nonetheless his version that several listeners and musicologists regard as the definitive recording. It's not especially hard to see why--there are very few performers who could ever play a sadder song than Ledbetter's "Irene," whether it be his low humming 12-string, his sorrowful lyrics ("Sometimes I live in the country/sometimes I live in town/sometimes I have the great notion/to jump in the river and drown") or his anguished vocal moans. The deep-rooted style Ledbetter displays in "Irene"--pounding rhythm, catchy refrain and melodramatic phrases--served as a notable influence and musical norm for countless artists of the 1960s folk revival movement. It's very difficult to describe Ledbetter's recording of "Goodnight Irene" to those who have never heard it, but to those who have, the conclusion is self-explanatory: Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" is not only one of his greatest songs, but truly one of the indispensable relics of American music.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1940-1943) 1995 Document 2:25
blue highlight denotes editor's pick