For my fifth Quarantine Session article, I will discuss Goodnight, Irene.  Specifically, I will examine how The Weavers transformed Lead Belly’s version of the song in making it a hit with in the 1950s.  Lead Belly’s version of the classic was quite dark, whereas The Weavers toned down the dark aspects of the song in order to make it more optimistic and palatable to a wider audience.

Mark Caserta and I Perform Lead Belly’s Goodnight, Irene

First, I present my performance of Goodnight, Irene with Mark Caserta.  We perform a modified version of Lead Belly’s Goodnight, Irene.  I chose to play it in a minor key in order to augment the darker nature of the song.  You can a video with our recording on Mark’s Vimeo channel (see video on Vimeo).

The Weavers’ Tamed Version of Goodnight, Irene

In 1950, The Weavers, a popular folk revival group, scored a hit with their recording of Goodnight, Irene.  The success of The Weavers’ version of the song led to other top artists such as Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra covering it.

Goodnight Irene achieved a prominent place in the American music canon.  It is hard to find someone who has not at least heard the refrain, “Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Goodnight, Irene tells the story of a melancholic man whose marriage has gone off the rails.  While the protagonist laments, and “sometimes takes a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” he finds joy in seeing his wife in his dreams.  The song concludes with either a third party or a voice in the protagonist’s head urging him to clean up his act and return to his wife and family.

Above, I described the most well-known and popularized version of Goodnight Irene.  As we will discover, this is a cleaned up, censored, version of the original song.

Lead Belly and the Original Versions of Goodnight, Irene

The Weavers’ version of Goodnight, Irene, derived from Lead Belly.  Lead Belly was a Louisiana-born African-American blues and folk artist.  He was known for his distinctive tenor voice and his use of the unusual 12-string acoustic guitar.

Before sitting down to research this article, I had thought that Lead Belly wrote Goodnight, Irene.  However, I learned that the history of the song is far more complicated.  According to NPR, Lead Belly claimed that his uncle wrote Goodnight, Irene.  The NPR article traced the origins back a bit further – to Gussie Lord Davis, a nineteenth-century African-American artist hailing from Dayton, Ohio.  NPR suggested that the song made its way to Lead Belly through the medium of traveling minstrel shows.

None of this additional background detracts from the fact that the version of Goodnight, Irene, that we know today, has its roots in Lead Belly’s version.  The NPR article quotes Pete Seeger, who was part of The Weavers for their recording of Goodnight, Irene, as noting that Lead Belly “changed everything he ever sung.”  Goodnight, Irene, is no exception, Lead Belly modified or wrote the majority of verses in his version of the song.  As I have discussed previously, the idea of taking parts from old songs, adapting them, and making them one’s own, is intrinsic to the folk music tradition.

The Discovery of Lead Belly

Lead Belly’s early years were marked by violence, but it was ironically his indiscretions that lead to his being discovered.

Huddie William Ledbetter, who would come to be known as Lead Belly, was born in either 1888 or 1889 on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana.  By 1918, he was arrested and imprisoned in Texas for murder.  As the Financial Times noted, Lead Belly managed to secure an early release by charming the guards with his musical abilities.  Unfortunately, he would return to jail for his part in a knife fight, where he resided in 1934.

In 1934, John and Alan Lomax, the two folklorists responsible for collecting many of the early folk recordings that we have today, visited Lead Belly’s prison.  Their mission was to record folk songs by some of the prisoners for the Library of Congress.

The very first song Lead Belly that John and Alan Lomax recorded was Goodnight, Irene.  The NPR article noted that the Lomax father-and-son-duo was mesmerized by Lead Belly’s performance.  While some accounts have John and Alan Lomax assisting in securing Lead Belly’s release, the NPR story states that this is a myth.  They did, however, assist Lead Belly in other ways.  John and Alan Lomax brought Lead Belly and his wife to New York City and hired them as their housekeepers and assistants.  John Lomax served as Lead Belly’s manager and promoter.

Lead Belly Establishes Himself

Lead Belly’s arrangement with the Lomaxs to be unpleasant, and the NPR article notes that John Lomax was criticized for using racial stereotypes to promote Lead Belly in an undignified manner.  For example, the Lomaxs played up Lead Belly’s sordid past, and generally made him more of a spectacle than an artist.  NPR observed that no one quite knew what to make of the folk musician from Louisiana.  Critics seized on Lead Belly’s criminal history and modest origins, while some in the black press labeled him an “Uncle Tom.”

Fortunately, Lead Belly split from the John and Alan Lomax in 1935.  The post-Lomax Lead Belly was always impeccably dressed for his performances, trading in the prison garb, overalls, and barrels of hay that John Lomax had him perform  for suits.  Thankfully, Lead Belly’s dignified post-Lomax stage persona is the one that we remember him for today.  While Lead Belly never publicly addressed his relationship with John and Alan Lomax, I think that the radical difference in how he presented himself once he had control of his own career and destiny speaks for itself.

Lead Belly pictured with his wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter, in 1935, after he had been discovered for his classic song, Goodnight, Irene.
Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), pictured with his wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter, in Wilton, Connecticut in 1935. Public domain image from the Lomax Collection of Photographs. Retrieved from Wikipedia

While Lead Belly shed the cartoonish appearance the John and Alan Lomax saddled him with, he did not change his musical style.  He was able to garner some level of respect commensurate to his immense talent.  Lead Belly’s home in New York City turned into a hub for aspiring folk artists, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

While Lead Belly contributed many songs to the American folk corpus, Goodnight, Irene, remained his signature number.  The royalties from the song continue to be divided between the Lead Belly estate and the Lomax estate.

Comparing The Weavers’ Version of Goodnight, Irene, to Lead Belly’s

At the top, I described The Weavers’ version of Goodnight, Irene, as a tame version of Lead Belly’s original.  With the background behind us, let us compare the two songs.

The Opening Lyrics

The Weavers’ version of Goodnight, Irene, begins as follows:

Last Saturday night I got married
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife are parted
I'm going to take another stroll down town

Lead Belly’s version begins with:

I asked your mother for you
She told me that you was too young
I wish Sweet Lord that I'd never seen your face
I'm sorry you was ever born

The difference between The Weavers’ and Lead Belly’s versions of Goodnight, Irene, is stark right off the bat.  In The Weavers’ version, the main couple is already married.  In Lead Belly’s version, the main couple is not yet married.  Instead, the protagonist was turned away by his love’s mother because she was too young to marry.  I would venture that The Weavers removed any reference to the girl being very young in order to make the song more palatable for television and radio.

The Ending Lyrics

The difference between the ending lyrics of The Weaver’s Goodnight, Irene, and Lead Belly’s Goodnight, Irene, is even starker than the difference between the opening lyrics of the songs.

The Weavers concluded Goodnight, Irene, as follows:

Stop your rambling, stop your gambling
Stop staying out late at night
Go home to your wife and your family
And sit by the fire side bright

Lead Belly concluded his version with:

I love Irene, God knows I do
I'll love her 'till the sea runs dry
If Irene turns her back on me
I'll take morphine and die

As if Lead Belly’s ending for Goodnight, Irene, was not dark enough already, he was wont to add a talking response, in the voice of Irene, urging the protagonist to take his own life.

In Lead Belly’s rendition of Goodnight, Irene, there seems to be no hope at the end of the tunnel for the protagonist.  Death is his only escape in the likely event that Irene does not return his affections.  The Weavers’ version holds out hope – the protagonist still has time to right his ways and return to his wife.

The Smallest Change is the Biggest Change

While The Weavers made substantial changes to the opening and ending of Goodnight, Irene, to radically transform the song, the most significant change in my reading was just one word in the middle of the song.  The Weavers’ version contains the following refrain:  “Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.”  (Emphasis added.)  Lead Belly’s earlier version was identical save for one word:  “Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I’ll get you in my dreams.”  (Emphasis added.)

The difference one word makes is staggering.  While The Weavers’ use of “see” suggests a protagonist hoping to be closer to Irene in his dream, Lead Belly’s use of “get” is much more aggressive and sexual.  This single word changes the mood of the entire song.

Final Thoughts

Surreal photo taken by Victor V. Gurbo to accompany his performance of Lead Belly's Goodnight, Irene.
Photo taken by Victor V. Gurbo on July 5, 2020, to go with the Goodnight, Irene, video he put together with Mark Caserta.

The folk tradition is one of adapting earlier works.  The Weavers altered parts of Goodnight, Irene, and omitted others, in order to create a song that would be acceptable for the wider audience at the time.  Their version of Goodnight, Irene, was a hit, but, for better or worse, it completely altered the atmosphere of the Lead Belly version from which it drew.  There is much to be said about taking from earlier works and altering them, but I will leave further thoughts on those issues for another day.

For those who are interested, you can see the following links to listen to Lead Belly’s performance of Goodnight, Irene, and The Weaver’s later version of the song.