Goodnight, Irene (Lead Belly and others)

Another song I’ve always known — I’m sure we sang it in school, I’m sure we sang it at the children’s sing-along evenings in Woods Hole, I’m sure I heard it sung by Pete Seeger, and the Weavers, and lots of other people, before I knew who Lead Belly was. Along with “Tennessee Waltz,” “Goodnight, Irene” was one of the two biggest hits of 1950, reaching the Billboard magazine Top Ten in versions by the Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Ernest Tubb with Red Foley — for people who haven’t heard all of those, I recommend checking out the Tubb/Foley record, which sounds a good deal folkier than the Weavers with their elegant string section.

Of course, once I heard Lead Belly’s version, I adopted it, and sing all the downbeat verses and “I’ll get you in my dreams” rather than “I’ll kiss you…” Some scholars have argued that he is actually saying “I’ll guess you in my dreams,” which they say is a regional/rural term meaning “imagine,” but the main reasoning behind that argument seems to be that they don’t like to think of him singing about “getting” a girl in his dreams, which they consider unromantic — a pretty damning commentary on the scholarly concept of romance.

There is also a scholarly discourse about the roots of the song, but it doesn’t really add much to the story. Basically, there were various waltzes called “Irene” in the 19th century, including one called “Irene, Good Night,” by the black pop/minstrel song composer Gussie Davis, which has a somewhat similar melody, though no shared lyrics beyond the title phrase. My relatively informed guess is that Leadbelly’s uncle, who taught him the song (or someone else, who passed it on to Lead Belly’s uncle), heard the Davis song, liked it, but didn’t remember much of it, so came up with their own song, inspired by it, but quite different.

That was (and is) very common in oral cultures — someone will hear a song they like, and keep singing a snatch of it, and eventually it gets melded with other bits and pieces, and ends up bearing little or no resemblance to the earlier model. (A good example is “Fishing Blues,” which almost everyone knows in a version Henry Thomas created from his vague memory of Chris Smith’s sheet music composition.) As for the bits and pieces, the “Sometimes I live in the country” verse was collected in Tennessee in 1909, so presumably was floating around the South by the turn of the century, and it wouldn’t surprise me if others were as well.

In any case, it’s a beautiful tune, with a lyric that both fits and undercuts the gentleness of the melody — having been a romantic young man myself, I recognize the pleasure of contemplating suicide if one’s love is rejected, and god knows it was a cliche of romantic fiction back to Goethe’s Werther, but most modern songwriters steer away from that particular romantic fantasy.

And for those who want to hear a snatch of the original, here it is: