Goodnight Irene


One of Jon’s favourites it seems as he says, “I really love this song and was quite chuffed when Tom Waits recorded it on Orphans, as well as Young At Heart, which is another unrelated favourite of mine – nice to have your musical taste validated by a genius. He also does a great Two Sisters– definitely a closet folky.” The song is of course an old one and while it will be forever associated with Lead Belly, it’s not until after his death that the Weavers’ version of this made the Billboard Charts. They somewhat sanitised the suicidal tendencies, which I note are reinstated here. Wiki is instructive here suggesting that although it may date back to the C19th, Lead Belly heavily modified it anyway. At the risk of upsetting other, other admin, I can’t help but note its curious use on the football terraces, where it’s the club song of ‘The Gas’ (Bristol Rovers), although the reasons for this seem to be as obscure as the song’s actual origins.

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17 Responses to “Goodnight Irene”

  1. John says:

    Very good. This song was played almost every week at my local folk club in the 60s until I eventually became a bit fed up with it. It wasn’t until I heard the superb Kelly Joe Phelps version (on his 1999 album ‘Shine Eyed Mister Zen’) that I realised again just what a good song it is. Jon’s singing and playing is up there with the best.

  2. Jane Ramsden says:

    Your singing and playing were lovely, Jon, but I can only describe this song at best as ‘alright’! It is akin to ‘Waltzing Matilda’ with me. Interesting that Tom Waits recorded both, and I am frankly amazed by how many people have done ‘Goodnight Irene’ as a cover!

    To make it better/worse, I have been given a copy of Kelly Joe Phelps album ‘Shine Eyed Mister Zen’, so it seems I can torture missen agin! Hahahahaha! Well, if it’s as good as John above says, maybe I can learn some appreciation, lost no doubt through a certain amount of saturation over time.

    The only way I can make any real sense of the song, which would demand a slightly different rendition, is to say it sounds like a romantic drunk, fondly remembering his lost love in his cups on his way home, with all the attendant hyperbole of how many different ways he can kill himself for ‘lurve’. Actually, with that in mind, I’m finding it more enjoyable by the minute!

    The best part of the Wiki entry for me was where it said “Goodnight Irene was also the name of the main finishing move of professional wrestler Adrian Adonis (real name Keith Franke). Goodnight Irene was the sleeper hold.” That about sums it up – HAHAHAHAHAHA!

  3. Gerry Prewett says:

    Legend has it that on 4 November 1950 Bristol Rovers were losing at home to Plymouth Argyle. As was a common practice at the time the half-time entertainment consisted of an accordionist who played the ‘hits of the day’, amongst which was “Goodnight Irene” As Rovers stormed back to win the game in the second-half with 3 goals in 8 minutes the 29,654 crowd started to sing “Goodnight Argyle”.

    Rovers had a tremendous FA Cup run that season and reached the Quarter Finals, where they were drawn against eventual winners Newcastle United away. 62,787, including over 5,000 from Bristol, packed into St James’ Park to see a brave Rovers team pull off a shock 0-0 draw. The strains of “Goodnight Irene” reverberated around the North East. The following Wednesday afternoon Eastville was packed with a 30,074 crowd and as Geoff Bradford gave Rovers a surprise lead “Goodnight Irene” was given a lusty Bristol rendition. Since then it has been sung by Rovers fans everywhere and is one of the most recognised club songs anywhere.

    Now about the song itself. Leadbelly, whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter, developed this while he was in jail for attempted murder from 1918-1924. It won him his freedom when the warden let him go after hearing this.

    In 1950, this was a #1 hit for The Weavers. It was one year after Leadbelly died. In most versions, there is a line “I’ll see you in my dreams.” In Leadbelly’s, he sang: “I’ll get you in my dreams.” The Rovers crowd identified with another line in the song, “sometimes I have a great notion, to jump in the river and drown” – the River Frome ran alongside the ground.

    There are over 150 recorded versions of the song available Rolf Harris unbelievably does a cracking version as do Ry Cooder and Van Morrison.

  4. Steve says:

    In the interests of fairness to both sides of the Bristol (footballing) divide, I request that Jon does a Wurzels song later in the year. Or maybe not…

  5. rich says:

    you can’t over saturate a good song

    like folk above i’ve heard many versions of this – a particular favourite of mine by the great unrecognised folkie, Ry Cooder.

    it seems to me a great song stands by the number of covers that do not destroy it.

  6. David says:

    Many thanks for this one, Jon – I thought I knew the song, but you have made it live again. Also thanks for the fascinating information from Gerry.

  7. Simon Dewsbury says:

    Only taken us ’til song 126 for the blog to get taken over by football! I love the idea of having a live accordianist as half time entertainment. And I suppose that the (former) terraces are the place where the most social singing goes on now, in numbers if not in quality

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    Yes, thank you, Gerry! I’m not a football fan, but loved your information. I have now been serially torturing missen with ‘Goodnight Irene’ on YouTube! I tried the Bristol Rovers. They are on there with a dog wearing a coat reading Bristol Rovers. (Should that be Rover?) I am learning a new respect for this song as testimony to male humour in the Adonis with his sleeper hold and ‘Goodnight Argyle!’

    Tom Waites sings it as I imagined the song’s meaning, but I find I don’t like what I imagined so much! (No disrespect to Mr Waites’ rendition.) The original Leadbelly version is marvellous, as he truly has a voice that I can see would get him off an attempted murder charge! I found the Weavers’ version, where they say they learnt the song directly from Leadbelly, and one by Mississippi John Hurt on Rainbow Quest No. 36 with Pete Seeger, Hedy West, and Paul Cadwell. It is preceded by a longish, but charming, interview and then sung more up tempo & greatly enhanced by Hedy West’s wonderful voice. I am now in danger of liking it!

    It was also sung for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday by a full cast at Madison Square Garden, including Springsteen, Mellencamp, Taj Mahal, Arlo, Billy Nershi, Keller Williams, Joan Baez, Michael Franti, Bele Fleck, Ben Harper and many more. Jon, you are in very good vocal company with this song!

  9. Gervase Webb says:

    Another cracking version; up there with Tom Waits (and yes, what a genius) and the wonderful wall of sound from Half Man Half Biscuit.
    So, when do we get Innocent When You Dream?

  10. Gervase Webb says:

    …and by way of contrast, try Kelly Joe Phelps introspective version, and Van Morrison’s version with Willy Nelson, sounding like a couple of maudlin old soaks rolling down the alley after closing time and making the windowpanes rattle and all the dogs bark.

  11. schlimmerkerl says:

    Reliable sources indicate that when he performed it live, Leadbelly sang “I’ll GET you on my dreams”.

  12. Diana says:

    A lovely old song of which I seem to remember many versions of this sung by a great many singers. Jon sings it well.

  13. Jane Ramsden says:

    I wasn’t going to listen to it again but, having re-read the comments above, I decided I had to give it yet another chance. Still not keen, despite Jon’s lovely rendition. What does everyone see in this song that passes me by? Hahahahahaha!

  14. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    You were right last year Jane, it is a song for romantic drunks, rolling home after a good night, and as such it is marvellous. (I have sung it a few times !) I must try and find the Morrison / Nelson version that Gervase mentions.

  15. Walking Your Dog in the Gold Coast…

    […]Goodnight Irene « A Folk Song A Day[…]…

  16. Diana says:

    My opinion hasn’t changed since last year – still a lovely song, and Jon does a good job singing it.

  17. Tony Capstick’s usual finishing song ~ sung with vigour


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