Saturday, August 19, 2000

Today in Music (1950): The Weavers “Goodnight Irene” hit #1

Goodnight Irene

The Weavers with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra

Writer(s): Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (see lyrics here)

First Charted: July 1, 1950

Peak: 113 US, 14 HP, 110 CB, 16 AU (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 2.0 US

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 1.0 radio, 1.82 video, 0.30 streaming

Awards (Leadbelly):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Weavers):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Ernest Tubb/Red Foley):

About the Song:

Tasked by the Library of Congess with making field recordings, John and Alan Lomax traveled throughout the American South to capture prison hollers and folk ballads. “Goodnight Irene” was the “most famous song recorded on their travels.” TC They heard it in July 1933, as performed by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter in Angola, Louisiana. He was 42 and serving his third stint in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. SS John Lomax said, “We came there looking for the roots of American black song and we certainly found them with Leadbelly.” TC He “sang spirituals, popular songs, field and prison hollers, cowboy and children’s songs, dance tunes and folk ballads, as well as his own compositions.” NRR As John Szwed wrote, he was “a man with a vast repertoire of traditional material and…such performing flair that he seemed to give off light when he sang.” SS

“Goodnight Irene” was used “to open and close most of his concerts, in a conscious attempt to soften his rough-hewn image.” NPR John Lomax and Leadbelly took writing credits on the song, but it actually can be traced to African-American composer Gussie L. Davis, SS who, according to Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, first published the sentimental waltz in Cincinnati in 1886 and again in New York in 1892. JA

Wolf and Lornell say Leadbelly would have learned the song in 1908 in his native Texas from his uncle Terrell. SS He reworked it to “fit his performing needs, accompanied as always by his Stella 12-string guitar.” SS The song focuses on “a troubled man who needs love and stability but doesn’t have the constitution for them…The singer calls for morphine and contemplates suicide. Yet the love that he feels for Irene is transcendent and gentle and life-giving.” TC “In that flowing waltz we have a sense of the love that he craves.” TC

By the early 1940s, the song “was very familiar to everyone in the folk community.” SS Pete Seeger, of the Weavers, had befriended Leadbelly and knew first-hand the power of the song to captivate an audience. His group’s recording of the song, complete with “violins and other orchestra touches provided by Gordon Jenkins,” SS divided folk purists but made for a monstrously successful commercial recording, hitting #1 in 1950, just months after Leadbelly’s death. There were five other chart versions that year by the Alexander Brothers (#26 PM), Dennis Day (#17 PM), Frank Sinatra (#5 PM), Jo Stafford (#1 UK), and Ernest Tubb & Red Foley (10 PM, #1 CW).


Last updated 1/31/2024.

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