How "Goodnight Irene" Saved Leadbelly From Prison

History of an American Folk Song

Leadbelly Ledbetter
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

It's a soft, mellow tune with simple lyrics, yet its place in American folk music history is undeniable. "Goodnight Irene " has been recorded and performed by countless artists over the years. Before all of that, it was fundamental in changing the life of the man who would become known as Leadbelly.

Leadbelly and "Goodnight Irene"

By far the most interesting story about the American folk song, "Goodnight Irene," comes from none other than folk-blues pioneer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly).

In 1925, Leadbelly received a pardon from the Governor of Texas after being sentenced for murder. He had written a song in his own defense and the pardon relieved him of a rather lengthy prison sentence.

Leadbelly found himself imprisoned once again in 1930, this time for attempted murder in Louisiana. Lucky for him, though, folk song collectors John and Alan Lomax came across him while Leadbelly was on a chain gang. The pair were gathering folk songs for a Library of Congress archive and were immediately entranced by Leadbelly's tenor voice and impressive song repertoire.

Leadbelly sang "Goodnight Irene" for John Lomax. The folklorist brought the song to the governor, who freed Leadbelly on the condition that he would be under Lomax's care. The musician, of course, went on to become one of the most influential African-American artists in history. It was all thanks to "Goodnight Irene."

The song, however, was not written by Leadbelly. Its origins actually stretch back to a song by Gussie L. Davis in 1889, a year after Leadbelly was born in Louisiana. Leadbelly said that he learned the song from his uncle.

"Goodnight Irene" Lives On

After Leadbelly's "discovery" and consequent fame from the song in the 1940s, The Weavers picked it up and hit number one with it in 1950, a year after Leadbelly's death. Since then, it's also been recorded by Ry Cooder, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, The Chieftains, Eric Clapton, Tom Waits, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, to name a few.

If you would like to hear one of Leadbelly's recordings of the song, this YouTube video is believed to be from 1935 and takes place in Wilton, Connecticut.

Leadbelly was known for a number of great songs and for influencing countless musicians who followed. In 1988, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among his other notable tunes are "Rock Island Line" and "The Midnight Special.