Irene: The Truth Revealed.

By D. J. Style (a Gentleman)

Abstract of an Address given to the Irene Goodnight Appreciation Society by the Author on 24th September 1994.

Goodnight Irene, long considered one of the most plangent of American traditional love songs is in fact a gambling song whose true meaning has been deliberately obscured for reasons which will be explained.

Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter, b. Mooringsport, Louisiana 1889 - d. 1976) wrote Goodnight Irene while incarcerated for murder in North Carolina State Penitentiary, situated in the foothills of the beautiful Appalachian mountains. Today he is remembered as a songwriter, but in his lifetime he was a professional and compulsive gambler, specialising in roulette, stud poker and the dice. Goodnight Irene is a celebration of the best and worst times of Leadbelly’s gambling career.



Irene, goodnight Irene, Irene goodnight.
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams.

The very best night of Leadbelly’s life was spent at the poker table. All but two men had ceased bidding: Leadbelly and "Lollipop" Lee Staine (real name Levi Stein, seaman, jazz musician, gambler and womaniser whose nickname arose from the succour he gave to the ladies in the Jewish community. This man will appear many times in the story of Leadbelly’s life).

The bidding was high, each man saying "I’ll see you for a hundred and I’ll raise you a hundred" until there were over 4000 dollars on the table and Leadbelly had no more money to offer. At this moment of high tension Leadbelly declared "OK, I’ll see you" and Staine showed his cards, a full house - four nines and an ace. Leadbelly spread out a royal flush - Ace to ten of Hearts - and became richer than ever in his life before. Years later Leadbelly confided to John Lomax that he still had nightmares about that awful moment of showdown.

Leadbelly worked as croupier at the roulette wheel on the Mississippi river boats. At that time, in addition to the regular 36 segments, the wheels included a segment nought, known as "the good old ‘0’ ". Whenever the ball landed in the ‘0’ the croupier swept the table - a handsome source of income in good times.

I win, good nought, I win. I win, good nought.
Good nought, I win; good nought, I win.
I’ll see you in my dreams.

Verse 1

Last Saturday night I got married.
Me and my wife settled down.
Now me and my wife are parted,
I’m gonna take another stroll down town.

The day which started Leadbelly’s decline into crime was also spent at the stud poker table. Tempted by his earlier success, Leadbelly again gambled his life’s savings on the cards. Over a period of three hours he was totally thrashed and was ruined. In gambler’s jargon, being thrashed at stud was known as "being ridden like a mare". The allusion is obvious.

In trepidation, he returned home to tell his wife Mary Ann - who liked to be known as Mi-Ann - that they were penniless. She, knowing his violent nature, counselled him to back off and do nothing rash, but he refused to take it lying down. He was determined to get money straight away by whatever means. In fact he went back to the gambling hall and watched and waited. Later that night some fool who had drunk too much stuffed his wad of notes in his pocket and left the hall. Leadbelly followed, stabbed the man and stole his bank roll.

Last Saturday night I got mare rid.
Mi-Ann my wife said "Lay down".
NO! Mi-Ann my wife’s half hearted.
I’m gonna take a nutter’s roll down town.

(Author’s note: Some commentators believe the murdered man was Lee Staine. This is unlikely. Leadbelly calls him a ‘nutter’, not a ‘sucker’).

Verse 2.

Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in the town.
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.

Leadbelly fled the police into the countryside where for some time he scratched a living rolling the die (dice is the plural of die - one die, two dice) with poor agricultural workers.

At this point it is necessary to explain why this song is worded so obscurely.

Goodnight Irene was written in the penitentiary, where gambling was forbidden. Even talking or singing about gambling was not allowed. Offenders were reported to the Governor who might withdraw parole.

So the song must be encrypted: I win becomes Irene, Good nought becomes goodnight and so on.

Here, Leadbelly wants to say "For some time I die (ie I roll the die)", but he dares not. Very well then, if he cannot say die then he will say live. Brilliant, isn’t it? No one would suspect that this verse is all about crap!

Becoming bolder he returned to the city but the police were soon on to him. Lee Staine, a seaman himself, found him a job as deck hand on a tramp ship along the Eastern seaboard (the "Great Ocean"). Afterwards he worked on the Mississippi paddle steamers as the guitarist in a jazz band known as the "Round River Band", so called because of the dance craze at that time known as "Jumpin’ round".


Some time I "live" in the country.
Some time I "live" in the town.
Some time I takes to the great ocean
To jump with the river band "Round".

Verse 3

Stop rambling; stop your gambling.
Stop stayin’ out late at night.
Go home to your wife and family.
Stay there by the fireside bright.

There were five other members of the river band. There were the two Berlin brothers, Rambo and Gambo. Gambo played trombone from a wheelchair, having been crippled in childhood by a contagious tropical disease - hence his nickname "Yaws"

Gambo on the other hand was the cousin of that world famous songwriter of the 1930s, Cole Porter.

Lee Staine played trumpet, the vocalist’s name was Adelaide and "Darky" Knight was on drums.

The band held a permit to work on the river and feared that if it became known that they were harbouring a criminal they would lose their licence and their livelihood. Gambo suggested they turn Leadbelly over to the police. Knight refused, fearing that if Leadbelly could kill once he might kill the informant. Adelaide argued that they should all go to the cops together as Leadbelly could not kill all of them.

When they told him of their intention, Leadbelly appealed to them each individually not to do it. He volunteered that the next time the steamer moored alongside, he would take off (Leveetate). This he did with a heavy heart, having lost his money, his job and his friends and unable to work the ferries or the gambling halls.

He made his way home to Mi-Ann, the only person he had left in the whole world, only to find on his arrival that "Lollipop" Lee Staine had moved in with his wife and was sitting in his armchair. Leadbelly had once broken Staine financially, but now Staine had broken Leadbelly’s heart and spirit.

He walked away and was soon overtaken by the law.


"Stop, Rambo Berlin! Stop, Yaws Gambo Berlin!
Stop Staine, Adelaide and Knight".
I go home to my wife and found Lee
Staine there by my fireside bright.

I win, good nought etc.

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