The song "Goodnight Irene" was written and first recorded by Huddy Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly) in around 1932, during the height of that other depression. The song was derived from an old folk song, but Leadbelly wrote his own verses and made the song his own.
While Leadbelly was in prison in the Lousiana State Pentitentiary (aka Angola) John and Alan Lomax learned about his music, and soon began recording Leadbelly's songs to preserve them as a part of America's culture for the Library of Congress. As was common at that time, the song never gained national recognition or particular popularity when recorded by a black artist. White America still mostly listened only to white performers. Long after his death, the Grammys awarded Lead Belly's 1936 Library of Congress recording of the song a "Grammy Hall of Fame" award.
The Weavers was the name of a folk music group in Greenwich Village, New York, consisting of Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger. In their early days, they performed mostly at the Village Vanguard. Soon after Leadbelly's death, in 1950, the Weavers recorded Goodnight Irene, and it became an enormous hit for them.
Immediately after gaining their first success, the Weavers became victims of the McCarthy era anti-communist witch-hunts, and were blacklisted. Their label dropped them, radio and TV refused to play their songs, and if they appeared in person they were hounded and harassed by the FBI and the right-wing. The group disbanded in 1952 because they could not find work, but in 1955 they held a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, which sold out.
The song Goodnight Irene eventually became a classic, a standard in the American songbook.
Among other famous performers who have recorded Huddy Ledbetter's song "Goodnight Irene" are Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, the Pogues, Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, The Kingston Trio, Ry Cooder, Tom Waits, and John Sebastian.
Different performers have altered the original lyrics of Leadbelly which, when written, were both dark and somewhat controversial, talking about the misery of disappointment in love, possible suicide. "sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown," which was the inspiration for the 1964 novel "Sometimes A Great Notion," by Ken Kesey.