"Goodnight, Irene" has become an American standard. It is usually associated with the Weavers who had a hit in 1950. It first reached the Billboard charts on June 30, 1950 and spent 25 weeks on the chart, reaching Number One. But the Weaver version wasn't the only hit version. Within weeks of the Weavers release, "Goodnight Irene" was covered by Frank Sinatra and three other pop artists charted with their own covers later in the year. It was a Number 5 hit for Sinatra, one of his few chart-toppers in the period, but reportedly he hated the song and rebuffed fan's calls to perform it.
It was also a country hit. Red Foley and Ernest Tubb recorded this version that was a number one country hit in the summer of 1950.
Moon Mullican had a lesser hit the same year.
All these hits came a year after Goodnight Irene's composer Leadbelly died. He had recorded it for the Library of Congress in the 1930's, but said he learned the song from an uncle and had begun singing it around 1908. Some people say it is a Tin Pan Alley song from 1886, and not a folk song. Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of the The Life and Legend of Leadbelly report that Leadbelly's song was most likely an adaptation of n 1886 song by the early African American songwriter Gusie Lord Davis. (pp. 53-56). There does seem to be an argument that Leadbelly modified the rhythm, melody, and lyrics of the song enough to be credited as composer. though
There doesn't seem to be any justification for Alan Lomax to have claimed co-writer credits and royalties. The song was already in Leadbelly's repertoire when the Lomaxes first met him.
Interestingly, Wolfe and Lornell write that the ARC company did not appreciate the diversity of Leadbelly's music when they recorded him.
...they had a simplistic perception of black folk music. They divided folk and folklike music into two camps: Whites performed hillbilly and cowboy songs, while black singers played blues and spirituals. A black man like Hudie, whose complicated repertoire ranged across these arbitrary lines, seemed problematic to them. They finally did consent to record "Irene" but it was never released. (p. 158)
Wikipedia's entry on "Goodnight, Irene" notes that
the Weavers chose to omit some of Leadbelly'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 next edition of Country Club will provide further evidence of just how popular "Goodnight, Irene" was.