SONG: Goodnight, Irene
ARTIST: The Weavers
Listen to it here:
What has become a 20th century American folk standard, started as a song written by and first recorded by blues musician Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter in 1933. For more information on Leadbelly, please see our review of Song 20 – Gallis Pole from October 29th.
The song tells of the singer’s troubled past with his love, Irene, and expresses his sadness. Some of the verses refer explicitly to suicidal fantasies, most famously the line “sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” which became the inspiration for Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion and also a song by the same name by John Mellencamp in 1989.
The original version by Leadbelly is considered a “folk recomposition” of the 1886 song “Irene Good Night” by Gussie L. Davis, but was heavily rewritten and modified by Leadbelly.
A year after Lead Belly’s death, the Weavers recorded their version of “Goodnight, Irene”. It was a B-side track that became a hit that sold over 2 million copies, and remained on the Billboard Best Sellers chart for 25 weeks, including 13 weeks at number 1. The Weavers stayed fairly faithful to Lead Belly’s song, except for some of the more depressing lyrics, which they chose to omit. This led Times magazine to label the Weavers version “dehydrated” and “prettied up”. Regardless of this criticism, The Weaver’s lyrics are the ones that are now generally used.
In 1940, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger co-founded the Almanac Singers, a group that promoted peace and isolationism during World War II. They sang many songs opposing entry into the war by the US. In June, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the group pivoted its focus to supporting the US entry into the war. After the US entered the war, the Almanac Singers disbanded. The Weavers were formed in 1948 again led by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, and got their name from a German play that depicted the 1844 uprising of Silesian weavers.
Success was slow going for the Weavers, and they finally got a steady engagement at the Village Vanguard jazz club. This led to their discovery and signing with Decca Records. “Goodnight, Irene” and its A-side, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” became the group’s first big hit. In the early 1950s and the “Red Scare”, there was some criticism of the group by folk song fans who believed that the Weavers were watering down their beliefs and commercializing their singing style because they avoided singing their most explicitly political songs, and avoided more “progressive” venues. The Weavers believed that it was worth it to get their songs before the public and avoid the situations which led to the demise of the Almanac Singers. This proved to be a good decision for the group and they went on to record tons of folk standards and hits like “On Top of Old Smoky”, “The Wreck of the John B” (aka “Sloop John B”), “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, and “Wimoweh”.
Somewhat predictably, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were identified as Communist Party USA members during McCarthyism, and were called on to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. Hays took the Fifth Amendment, and Seeger refused to answer, claiming First Amendment grounds. He was found guilty of contempt and placed under restrictions by the court. Because of this, all of the Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance and not allowed to perform on television or radio during the McCarthy era. This quickly led to the disbanding of the Weavers.
In 1955, the group reunited and played a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. The group began recording again, but Seeger became frustrated with the Weavers’ embarrassing attempt at a rock and roll number, and their “selling out” by playing for a cigarette ad. He left the group in 1958, though it was not until 1967 that Seeger was able to end his blacklisting by appearing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
- Lead Belly’s recording of “Irene” came from a session he did while in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and produced three different versions that were eventually released in the 1960s through the Library of Congress.
- In 2002, Lead Belly’s prison recording won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
- Goodnight, Irene is the club song of the British football club, the Bristol Rovers.
Ok, first things first – I watched a documentary on Pete Seeger a few years ago and since then I’ve thought he’s the coolest, a total unexpected badass! And on his banjo he has written “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”. I mean how cool is that. Anyway, I really feel like I should know this song, but I just…don’t. I don’t really feel anything listening to this song, just kind of neutral. I guess I take umbrage with the melody in the verses, I find it a bit grating, and the chorus is infinitely better. The Weavers are all pretty good singers, and I can totally hear that New York folk revival Mighty Wind-type of torch song on the horizon here, which is really cool – I’m imagining a bunch of beatniks with their guitars and banjos in coffee shops in New York City with their turtlenecks and horn-rimmed glasses! But Goodnight Irene will get a pass from me.
Here’s another song that most people know and probably have some memory of singing it around the campfire, or listening to The Weavers on record, or something. This was a huge hit folk song, and the version by The Weavers is probably the most popular version. And with good reason, I think. The Weavers keep it simple, keep it folksy, and somehow got away with singing about taking morphine and dying in 1950…crazy. I’m not sure I specifically have a memory of listening to this with my family a lot as a child, or if it’s just because it’s such a quintessential folk tune that it kind of warms my heart to hear it. There are a ton of versions of Goodnight, Irene around, so for bonus points, listen to the other notable versions below and make your vote for the “best” one!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Of course we have to start with Lead Belly’s original version. Wow, I just really like Lead Belly.
A very Johnny Cash version:
This one’s in here mainly for Judy Garland’s laugh – Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope sing a much more lighthearted version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: