First released by Lead Belly (1933).
Hit version by The Weavers (US #1 1950).
From the wiki: “Lead Belly was singing a version of the song from as early as 1908, which he claimed to have learned from his uncles Terell and Bob. An 1886 song by Gussie L. Davis has several lyrical and structural similarities to the latter song, however no information on its melody has survived. Some evidence suggests the 1886 song was itself based on an even earlier song which has not survived. Regardless of where he first heard it, by the 1930s Lead Belly had made the song his own, modifying the rhythm and rewriting most of the verses.
“Lead Belly continued performing the song during his various prison terms, and it was while incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that he encountered musicologists John and Alan Lomax who would go on to record hours of Lead Belly’s performances. A few months prior to his release in 1934, Lead Belly recorded a number of his songs, including Irene, for the Library of Congress.
“In 1950, one year after Lead Belly’s death, the American folk band The Weavers recorded a version of “Goodnight, Irene.” The single first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on June 30, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1.
“Although generally faithful, the Weavers chose to omit some of Lead Belly’s more controversial lyrics, leading Time magazine to label it a ‘dehydrated’ and ‘prettied up’ version of the original. Due to the recording’s popularity, however, The Weavers’ lyrics are the ones generally used today. The Weavers’ enormous success inspired many other artists to release their own versions of the song, many of which were themselves commercially successful.”
The Weavers, “Goodnight, Irene” (1950):