The Great Songs: "Goodnight, Irene"

in Music

The original recording
The original recording

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on “The Great Songs.” These are songs that have stood some reasonable test of time; been performed by multiple artists; and stand up to virtually any arrangement.
Today the focus is, “Goodnight, Irene,” a song I enjoy so much that April and I have agreed to name our first female child “Irene”.
The song is generally attributed to Leadbelly, although he said he learned it from an uncle. Some say it was originated by 1800’s folk singer Gussie Davis.
The lyrics tell of  powerful love and dissolution and can, depending on the arrangement, be joyful, sad or menacing. Like many folk songs, “Irene” has many alternate lyrics, but the standard goes like this:

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight,
Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams

Last Saturday night, I got married
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife are parted
I’m gonna take another stroll downtown

Stop rambling, stop your gambling,
Stop staying out late at night
Go home to your wife and family
Stay there by your fireside bright.

I love Irene God knows I do
Love her till the seas run dry
And if Irene turns her back on me,
I’ll take morphine and die

I first came to love this song based on the rollicking Dr. John version:
Dr John: “Goodnight, Irene”
Of course, you have to go back to the original:
Leadbelly: “Goodnight, Irene”
Jerry Lee Lewis sounds like a stalker:
Jerry Lee Lewis: “Goodnight, Irene” (Live)
Gone country:
Ernest Tubb and Redd Foley: “Goodnight Irene”
Even instrumental, it has power:
Bill Frisell: “Goodnight, Irene”
Can’t go wrong with Willie Nelson and Tom Petty (From Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3):
Willie Nelson and Tom Petty: “Goodnight, Irene”
Hank Thompson tried to answer, and if the original being riffed on wasn’t already perfect, it would be a good song:
Hank Thompson: “Wake Up, Irene.”
And a video version from Mississippi John Hurt with Pete Seeger, Hedy West, and Paul Cadwell: