It would be impossible to tell the story of “Goodnight, Irene” without telling the tale of Huddie Ledbetter. There are accounts of the touring musician in shows performing a song called “Irene, Goodnight” in the 1880s, while American folklorists in the early twentieth century familiarized a verse in East Tennessee that turned up in “Goodnight, Irene”, a song about having the idea to “jump in the river and drown”. However, wherever the song came from, Huddie Ledbetter took ownership of it and adapted it. Our “Man in Black”, Johnny Cash, also had a version of the song. You will surely hear he did own it as well.
Huddie Ledbetter, “Lead Belly”
Huddie Ledbetter was a known as a man with an uncontrolled anger. In 1918, he was imprisoned for killing a man in a fight over a woman. Inside, he used a ballad song specially composed to charm the prison governor into granting him early release. However, in 1934, he was back inside the cell, in Angola prison, Louisiana. He was caught in a knife fight, when the folklorists John Lomax and his son, Alan, visited the institution. Struck by Ledbetter’s resounding tenor voice, and by what Alan Lomax later called his “panther-like grace and his extraordinary good looks”. Later on, the Lomaxes used their new handy recording machine to immortalize the voice and 12-string guitar-playing of the man known to his fellow prisoners and to following age group of music lovers, as Lead Belly.
“Goodnight, Irene”, Its Birth
“Goodnight, Irene” was the first song Lead Belly recorded for the Lomaxes. The song is about a walking cry of a married man gone off track. Lead Belly first heard the song sung by his uncles as a child. They perhaps knew it as “Irene, Good Night”, written in 1886 by one of Tin Pan Alley’s first black songwriters, Gussie Lord Davis. However, the growth of this song’s family tree started to spread everywhere. As his eminence spread, some journalists took a loud curiosity in his story. They labeled him the “homicidal harmonizer” and the “murderous minstrel”. “Goodnight, Irene” became his signature song in his performances until his death in 1949.
Our Favorite Version
Due to the record’s reputation, The Weavers’ lyrics are the ones commonly used today. However, although The Weavers’ version had a massive hit with “Goodnight, Irene” in 1950, Johnny Cash’s gave it the country sound it deserves. Have a share of Cash’s vocals on “Goodnight, Irene”.
Irene good night Irene good night
Good night Irene Good night Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams.
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Goodnight Irene, Johnny Cash