Goodnight Irene

Lead Belly

Song Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

“Goodnight Irene” was Leadbelly’s most famous song, and he often began and ended radio shows with it. He had learned the song from his Uncle Terrill Ledbetter around 1908 in Texas, but the origins of the song dates back to the 1880s, when an African-American songwriter named Gussie Davis probably wrote it. “Irene” was one of the first songs that Leadbelly sang when John Lomax met him in Angola Penitentiary in 1933. One controversy surrounding “Irene” and many other Leadbelly songs is that both John and Alan Lomax placed their names on the copyright, leading many to consider their relationship with the great folk singer as exploitive. In 1950 the Weavers had a gigantic hit with “Irene,” though they changed the phrase “I get you in my dreams” to “I’ll see you in my dreams.” The irony of the song’s success, however, was that Leadbelly, who had lived his final years on welfare, had died in 1949. John and Alan Lomax used their royalties to finance further song collecting trips. “Irene” has been literally recorded hundreds of time by folk (Kingston Trio), pop (Nat King Cole), and rock (Jerry Lee Lewis) performers.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Take This Hammer [Folkways] 1965 RCA 2:03
Good Mornin' Blues (1936-1940) 1969 Indigo 1:50
Folkways: The Original Vision 1988 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 1:05
Huddie Ledbetter's Best (His Guitar His Voice His Piano) 1989 Beat Goes On 2:55
Folk Song America, Vol. 1 1991
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 1:54
Folk [Friedman] 1994
Various Artists
Friedman Fairgfax 3:06
Folkways: A Vision Revisited 1994
Various Artists
Bescol 2:36
Leadbelly's Last Sessions 1994 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2:40
Memorial, Vol. 1-2 1995 Collectables 2:39
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1940-1943) 1995 Document 2:39
Good Morning Blues 1996 Pearl 5:00
Leadbelly [Virgin] 1996 Virgin 1:52
Smithsonian Folkways American Roots Collection 1996
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2:18
Inventing the Abbotts 1997 Nettwerk 1:54
Midnight Special [Prism] 1998 Prism Platinum 2:38
My Last Go Round 1999 Recall (UK) 1:51
Nothing But the Blues [Blues History] 2000
Various Artists
Blues History (Germany) 2:34
Midnight Blues [Madacy] 2000
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:34
Best of Lead Belly 2000 Purple Pyramid 2:35
Absolutely the Best 2000 Fuel 2000 2:32
Nothing But the Blues [Import] 2000
Various Artists
Import 3:39
American Folk Anthology, Vol. 1 2001
Various Artists
Fuel 2000 / Varese 2:33
Legendary Blues Recordings: Leadbelly 2001 Direct Source 1:24
The Rockin' Roots of Johnny Cash 2001
Various Artists
Catfish 2:38
American Roots Music [Box Set] 2001
Various Artists
Palm 1:53
American Roots Music [Highlights] 2001
Various Artists
Palm 1:52
Leadbelly [Dressed to Kill] 2001 Dressed To Kill 2:41
Blues Best 2002 Classic World Productions, Inc. 2:32
Roots of Ry Cooder 2002
Various Artists
Catfish 2:54
The Definitive Leadbelly 2002 Snapper 1:53
Blues Twinpack 2002 Dressed To Kill 2:41
You Don't Know My Mind 2002 Fabulous 4:37
The Tradition Masters 2002 Tradition 2:32
The Best of Leadbelly [Cleopatra] 2003 Cleopatra / Goldenlane 2:33
Ultimate Blues Album 2003
Various Artists
Varèse Sarabande / Fuel 2000 2:34
Last Sessions! 2005 Universe 2:41
Roots of Van Morrison [Snapper UK] 2008
Various Artists
Catfish 2:54
The History of Rhythm & Blues: 1925-1942 2010
Various Artists
Rhythm & Blues / Rhythm and Blues 0:00
Death Letter Blues History 3:39
You Do Me Any Old Way History 2:34