How many sides did Roosevelt Sykes produce between 1929 and 1942?

Before we start, the answer is 131 sides. Roosevelt Sykes issued 131 sides on 66 singles between 1929 and 1942. One side was by another artist.

On May 29, 2022, an Arkansas blues historian shared these pictures on Twitter:

Photos by Terry Buckalew, source: https://twitter.com/tmacbuckalew/status/1530941076659486721

They are from the Heroes of the Blues card set by R. Crumb (texts by Stephen Calt).

Here’s a quote on blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes from the card above: “He […] produced nearly 125 sides between 1929 and 1942”. Hm. The cards are neat, but the person tweeting these images asked a very good question: What are we to make of the statement that Sykes recorded “nearly 125 sides”. I mean, this is obviously a clunky way to phrase it, right? (“Beethoven wrote nearly ten symphonies”).

I couldn’t sleep at night because of this, let’s look into it.

To clear up something half-obvious: a side in this context refers to one song on one side of a single disc. Singles were usually double-sided.

So how many sides by Sykes are there, from the beginnings (1929) to the end of the period mentioned on the Crumb-card (1942)? To find out, I first looked into what’s available nowadays. For this, it’s usually best to take a look at the series put out by the Document label. I then cross-referenced this with Stefan Wirz’ online-discography and the professional discography Blues and Gospel Records: 1890–1943 by Robert Dixon and John Godrich (Dixon/Godrich) to see what had been issued at the time, but might not be available today. Of course, I also wanted to know what had not been issued back then, but is issued now. Let’s see.

The Document-series: 125 sides

The Document-series of Roosevelt Sykes’ complete recordings in chronological order feature 165 tracks total from 1929 until 1943 (it’s the first seven volumes). 4 of these tracks (the last four on Vol. 7) were recorded in 1943, so the series features 161 tracks total from 1929 until 1942. 30 of these 161 tracks are credited to other artists, meaning the series features 131 tracks credited to Sykes for said period, 1929 until 1942.

Now, 4 of these 131 tracks appearing on the Document-CDs were never issued before, so they don’t belong among Sykes’ issued sides from the time. This takes the amount of sides published up until 1942 down and leaves us with 127 tracks on the Document-CDs as originally published sides.

However, two song titles, “Essie Mae Blues” and “Dirty Mother for You”, appear twice. The reason being that Sykes recorded numerous songs in nearly identical takes, for example “Essie Mae Blues”, matrix number 67469-A and 67469-B. This was common practice, of course. Sometimes, both takes were used as master takes for distributed singles, treated interchangeably, as identical tracks (which they assumably were, in the grander scheme of things and material music business). So a single would either feature take A or take B but have the same catalogue number, as the takes are virtually non-distinguishable. This is only problematic insofar as the Document-series in one of those cases gives you both of these near-identical takes as two individual tracks, while these were not, in fact, takes issued as different singles. They were used for the same single with the same catalogue number.

So subtract these two takes, and we arrive at 125 sides actually issued on singles findable on the Document-series.

Dixon/Godrich-discography: 131 sides

As the Document-series is neither necessarily complete, nor an indication of what had been issued nor what had been unissued at the time, let’s look at the catalogue-numbers culled from a professional discography.

The discography Dixon/Godrich lists 158 individual matrix-number-entries for this period. 25 of these are listed as originally unissued and can be subtracted, suggesting 133 sides issued.

However, commonly the discography lists the “identical takes” used for the same single (as described) above under one entry, like this: “67469-A-B”. This means both takes A and B had been used for the single of this catalogue number. The discography then skips this habit for the two takes of “Eight Ball Blues”, wich each get an entry (67466-A, and 67466-B, respectively), and for “Dirty Mother for You”. For the latter, actually three takes were used interchangeably for the single, and these three takes receive two entries. So there’s two entries for “Eight Ball Blues” and for “Dirty Mother for You” where there arguably should be only one for each. We deduct these entries, and this gets us to: 131 sides for actually issued singles.

Stefan Wirz’ discography: 131 sides

So far, so good. To use a further control mechanism, Stefan Wirz’ unique single-discography mentions 66 singles (132 sides) for this period, and since there is only one side by Sykes on Champion 50071 (the other side is credited to Jimmie LaRue), this gives us 131 sides.

(Technical note: Wirz lists the single Decca 7874 twice, so deduct those, and we arrive at 129. Yet since Wirz’ list in turn omits the two sides on Decca 7252 (“Driving Wheel Blues” / “Barrelhouse Man”), we can add them, and are back at 131 as the originally published sides credited to Sykes for the period 1929–1942.)

What the Document-series misses

The Document-series misses six tracks in total that are listed in the discographies (this makes sense: 125 + 6 = 131). 4 sides indicated in the discography by Dixon/Godrich as originally published do not appear on the Document-CD: A doubled-sided single that was never actually found, and two B-sides that simply weren’t reissued on CD.

This brings the number up to 129 originally published titles. And lastly, both the Dixon/Godrich-discography and the Wirz’-discography list the single Champion 16558, “Steady Grinding” / “I Can’t to Save My Life”, which also does not appear on the Document-series (presumably because it is credited to “Sykes & Johnson”, as in Mary Johnson). But I follow the discographies to include it: We’re back at 131 originally issued titles, 125 of which are nowadays available on Document.

How many sides where there, now?

131 sides. Well, we sort of reverse-engineered this by seeing what’s available nowadays on CD and then filling in the holes with discographical information about matrix-numbers, different takes, issued and unissed sides et cetera.

The whole thing gets a lot easier if we don’t ask about how many sides he recorded, but instead just count the different catalogue numbers of the published singles with different song titles on them. The answer is, as should be obvious by now, 66 singles, 131 sides of which are credited to Roosevelt Sykes from 1929 to 1942. (This disregards all his sideman work, but that was the premise).

Crumb’s “nearly 125 sides”

Now let’s try to make sense of the statement on the Crumb-card: Roosevelt Sykes recorded “nearly 125 sides”… what the hell is that supposed to mean? Why this oddest of phrases, as opposed to “about 125 sides” or “at least 124 sides” or something sufficiently vague? Here go my thoughts: The cards were made in 1980, before the Document-series, before the CD-era. So all expert Stephen Calt, who wrote the bios, had to go on were discographies, LP-compilations and, well, the real sides.

Here is my iffy guess: We established that Sykes had initially issued 131 sides. Sykes used a number of pseudonyms during his career. The most contested of these was “Dobby Bragg”. By 1980, it was already assumed that Dobby Bragg is Roosevelt Sykes, but it was not completely settled and uncontested in all corners of the galaxy. 8 sides are credited to Bragg (2 of which were lost to history, never found). So assuming they didn’t count the sides by Bragg, we end up at 123 sides credited to Sykes. Then give or take some confusion about attribution: Do we count the sides credited to Sykes & Johnson? Yes, we do. (But remember, the Document-series doesn’t). Then there’s another single credited only to Johnson, with Sykes accompanying her. Should we count that one, too? Because that would add two sides…

That would make it… well, nearly 125 sides.

I don’t know, but this is as far as this got me. I would have liked to take a look at the Dixon/Godrich edition from 1969 (the one available to Crumb and Calt in 1980), to see if there was less information available, less sides noted, or anything. But it isn’t available where I live.

I get so sad and emotional about these things. I get up, make coffee, and I just see the brown bubbles come up and disappear. I stand there, I get back pains.

For more info on Roosevelt Sykes‘ discography, check the list I made for his output here.

Some «Irene»-Trivia: What is the recording length of aluminum lacquer discs, aka «acetate discs»?

Source: Library of Congress

Having busied myself with some «Irene»-trivia lately, more questions arose. For example, you’ll notice that the «Irene»-version 44-A is almost five minutes long while the maximum play length of a commercial shellac 78 was around three minutes. The «Irene»-version 44-B, then, lasts only about 2 minutes and features only one additional verse – verse 7 if you reconstruct 44-A and 44-B-1 as a supposedly continuous version. This is almost the same verse-structure (with seven verses total) that shows up if you reconstruct the «Irene»-versions 124-A-2 and 124-B-1 as a continuous version, compare my harmonization of «Irene»-versions.

Anyway, how do the field recordings by John and Alan Lomax account for the longer running time of tracks than a commercial 78 could hold?

The recording device and recording discs

It is true for commercial shellac 78rpms (10-inch) meant for replayat home that they only held about 3 minutes of music. Different discs were used for field recordings. John and Alan Lomax were supplied by the Library of Congress with a state of the art recording device, a «Presto» – this was a big machine that made electrically enhanced direct-to-disc recordings on aluminum discs and ,later, aluminum discs with a lacquer coating. These are called «aluminum discs» and «lacquer discs» usually, the latter most often referred to as «acetate discs» – which is materially speaking wrong, they were not made of acetate. While different explanations exist, it remains unclear how this factually wrong manner of naming them developed, but «acetate disc» is the most common name in popular contexts nowadays.

These recording «lacquer discs» were 12-inch-discs, not 10-inch (cf. Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 113), that could hold 5 minutes of music, and even more with some trickery: I read Alan Lomax could bring the recording time of those discs up to seven, some sources say even ten minutes – the most common technique to lengthen the record time apparently was to leave a narrower space between the grooves which in turn worsened the recorded quality. But this was a trade-off the Lomaxes often made for field recordings as these were not meant for commercial use.

Although John Lomax had used one of the only «portable» recording devices on his trips (starting 1907) before – recording on «Edison Dictaphone» wax cylinders which were fragile (cf. Morton 2000, 147) –, and although John and Alan Lomax even started out the 1933-trip with this «Ediphone» (cf. Kahn 2003, 1) and picked up the superior disc-cutting machine in Baton Rouge in mid-July (cf. Szwed 2010, 43), the Presto disc-cutting device was still immensely chunky. With a reported weight of 300 to 350 pounds (plus the discs, so some sources drive this number up to 500 pounds, cf. Ferris 2013, 15), installed in the back of the Lomaxes car.

The cylinder machine made only scratchy and squeaky sounds, but their new disc-cutting machine was the best portable machine on the market. These were long before the days of magnetic recording tape, transistors, and digital sound. Their new behemoth weighed a hefty 315 pounds. Alan recalls that the machine consisted of one large amplifier, a cutting turntable, two Edison batteries […], a loud-speaker, and the discs themselves. The latter were twelve inches in diameter, and were of annealed aluminum […].

(Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 113)

The fact the received the disc-cutting recording device just a couple of days before they first recorded Lead Belly in Angola Prison brings to attention that they had virtually no experience running that machine at that time. You can get a glimpse of such a device as well as of the 12-inch-discs in the film documentary Lomax the Songhunter (the device shown in that clip is not the one used for the Lead Belly-session of 1933 in Angola Prison, it’s a newer one). You can probably see that older Presto in action for a about two seconds in a completely staged «prison» scene recorded for the March of Time newsreel, with John Lomax and Lead Belly here, around the 15-second mark. (By the way, this film with its horrific script was reportedly despised by all involved: «There was something in the film to upset everyone», Szwed 2010, 73).

We have to imagine the process something like this: the 4+ minutes version 44-A was one continuous recording on one of those 12-inch-discs – the side was then labeled 44-A. Since the song wasn’t finished with all verses, Lomax then asked Lead Belly to finish the song for the archive, Lead Belly probably «restarted» the ending part which Lomax recorded on the flip side: 44-B. This explains the wildly different lengths of those recordings.

You can check how this worked if you consider three other examples.

1) Check the «Ella Speed»-version (125-B) on the essential compilation The Midnight Special: Library of Congress Vol. 1 (Rounder-1044) (also on SFW 40201), it is from Angola Prison, 1934. That recording runs a bit over six minutes and then gets a scrambled ending with the song unfinished. This is probably the maximum Lomax could stretch these discs out which he clearly didn’t like to do since examples of this length are rare. I guess that is where the assumption of a «seven minute»-limit comes from. Compare this to Lead Belly’s first recordings with commercial intent (the ones on Leadbelly – King of the 12-String Guitar, CK 46776) by the American Record Corporation (ARC) – they all punch in at around 3 minutes, as was necessary for shellac-78s playable at home.

2) Then, take a look at and listen to the first session by Lead Belly in Angola Prison, July 16–20, 1933, on DOCD-5579. You’ll notice that this session features the call numbers «119-B-1» to «119-B-6» and «120-A-1» to «120-A-7» (plus «120-B-5»). These are 45 to 90-second-snippets of different songs – DOCD-5579 doesn’t even bother to split the songs apart, they are one track on the CD: All songs labeled «119-B» were recorded on one side of a lacquer disc, as were the songs labeled «120». Wolfe/Lornell note about these recordings: «These [songs] took up one side of disc number 119-B, and a second, labeled 120, was started.» (Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 114). Lomax recorded for a short while, stopped the disc. Then restarted to record another song. And so on, until the side was full. The combined time of these song snippets is 4 to 5 minutes, that’s what a 12-inch-disc could hold on a side.

3) One last example: If you take a look at Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress-recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, it becomes clear just by looking at the track times what Lomax’s preferred manner of recording was in a controlled setting – maximum length of continuous recording without sacrificing too much quality. The entirety of the Library of Congress-Morton-recordings runs over eight hours – but each song and each interview cuts out very consistently at about 4:30 minutes. You can hear how Morton is interrupted after 4:30 minutes and then picks up the story where he was interrupted when Lomax puts on the next recording disc.

Well here we are, this was predominantly an entry to consolidate the scattered sources I found available online. There’s some more books I referenced and that I’ll make a note of here:

Further Reading and Sources:

Cohen, Ronald D. (Ed.): Alan Lomax. Assistant in Charge. The Library of Congress Letters, 1935–1945. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi 2010.

Doctor Jazz: Library of Congress: Jelly Roll and Alan Lomax Narrative Recordings and   Discography. URL: http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/page22.html

Ferris, William R.: Alan Lomax: The Long Journey. In: Piazza, Tom (ed.): The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax. Words, Photographs, and Music. New York: Library of Congress 2013, 10–21.

Kahn, Ed: Part I. 1934–1950: The Early Collecting Years. In: Lomax, Alan: Selected Writings 1934–1997. Ed. By Ronald D. Cohen. New York: Routledge 2003, 1–8.

Library of Congress: Southern Mosaic. The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. URL: https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9908/lomax.html

Ma Platine: History of the Record. URL: https://www.maplatine.com/en/content/64-history-of-the-record

Morton, David: Off the Record. The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick et al.: Rutgers 2000.

Preservation Self-Assessment Program: Aluminum Disc. URL: https://psap.library.illinois.edu/collection-id-guide/phonodisc#aluminumdisc

Preservation Self-Assessment Program: Lacquer Disc. URL: https://psap.library.illinois.edu/collection-id-guide/phonodisc#lacquerdisc

Public Broadcasting Service: Lomax the Songhunter. URL: http://archive.pov.org/lomax/background/

Szwed, John: The Man Who Recorded the World. A Biography of Alan Lomax. London: Heinemann 2010.

Wikipedia: Acetate disc. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetate_disc

Wolfe, Charles and Kip Lornell: The Life & Legend of Leadbelly. New York: Harper Collins 1992.

Yale University Library: The history of 78 RPM recordings. URL: https://web.library.yale.edu/cataloging/music/historyof78rpms

Lead Belly’s „Irene“ and its lyrical variants of the chorus: Kissing, getting, guessing and seeing.

Ramsey, Frederic Jr.: Liner notes for Leadbelly’s Early Recordings, Legacy Volume 3 (Folkways FA 2024, 1951).

Let’s talk about Lead Belly and his song «Irene, Goodnight», alternatively called «Goodnight, Irene». I’ll just refer to it as «Irene» here.

The question that interests us here is simple: What exactly does Lead Belly sing in the chorus’s last line? Is it: «I get you in my dreams»? «I guess you’re in my dreams»? «I kiss you in my dreams»?

It is really hard to make out in some takes and online ressources don’t seem to have a great consensus. There are different recordings with different plausible outcomes, we’ll take a look at that and some prominent cover versions below.

For those with little time, the «too long, didn’t read»-summary is this: Lead Belly mostly used «I get you in my dreams» for the early recordings (up until 1943), other times most likely an «I kiss(ed) you in my dreams». For later records (from 1944), he opted for something like «I guessed you in my dreams», which can be seen as a cleaned-up version of «I get» or «I kissed». Cover versions mostly use «I’ll see you in my dreams» (from the Weavers’s hit version) or, more in line with Lead Belly, «I get you in my dreams». For the fun details, read below.

As for the song: This is nowadays a classic of folk americana, a weird waltz that doesn’t quite fit into Lead Belly’s repertoire of blues, field hollers or folk songs, but does fit very well into his habit of soaking up whatever good song he could find and modify to make it his own. There is a cute family story about its origins – he supposedly made it up on the spot as a lullaby for his little baby niece. But this story is debunked – first, by his own uncle, Bob Ledbetter, who is known to have it sung before Lead Belly (and who says he learned it from his brother Terrell – you can hear this statement and Bob’s 1940 version on Document Records DOCD-5579), and secondly by Wolfe/Lornell who trace the song back even further to a 19th century popular song – but there is no written record. Wolfe/Lornell note:

There is evidence, nonetheless, that the chorus, at least, was circulating among other folksingers besides the Ledbetters. In November 1936 […], a Library of Congress field recording unit came upon Gilbert Fike in Little Rock, Arkansas. Fike was originally from Louisiana and sang a song called «The Girls Won’t Do to Trust,» [sic] which used a set of unusual misogynistic verses to set up a familiar chorus:

The girls will chew tobacco, but she will raise a fuss
The girls will dring good whiskey, boys, but they
Won’t do to trust

Irene, goodnight, Irene,
Irene, goodnight, my life,
I’ll kiss you in my dreams.

While it is possible that Fike had heard Huddie sing a version of the song […], it is probable that both Fike and Leadbelly heard the song as it circualted among rural singers in Texas and Louisiana.

(Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 53)

Well, the story goes on (there’s even earlier textual evidence), but so far this is pretty standard fair as far as the creation and development of folk songs go (for this, see also Ek 2014, and for a short summary online, see Lornell 2003). Let’s turn to the lyrics. What does Lead Belly do in his dream? «Get» Irene? «Kiss» Irene? «Guess»? The problem is that – especially on the early field recordings – it is really hard to make out what Lead Belly sings – and even in later versions, he uses a dialectal phrasing that sounds a lot like «giss» (hard g), like a mixture of «get» and «kiss». I think this is where the «guess» version comes from, which, spoiler, will turn out to be the least plausible one in my view.

Before we turn to the audio analysis, let’s get some clear textual evidence. As noted above, Wolfe/Lornell transcribe the songs origins as using the line «I kiss you in my dreams», and if you listen to Bob Ledbetter’s 1940-version, there is no doubt about it. This in itself stakes a strong claim for «kiss» instead of «get» or «guess» as an initial variant. Also, in the liner notes of the Folkways-LP Leadbelly’s Early Recordings, Legacy Volume 3 (Folkways FA 2024, 1951), Frederic Ramsey makes quite astute poetic observations about Lead Belly’s lyrical craft:

There is one quality of Leadbelly’s song that is only partially touched on in the Lomax book, how ever, but if we piece together bits of the Lomax story and combine them with the text and mood of Leadbelly’s songs, it can be sensed. There is in certain of the songs a mood of sleeplessness; in others, of dream, and trance. […] Where no escape is provided through sleep or dream, it is through alcolhol as in Roberta. The sleeplessness complements the dream, for it is a waking dream. It is a state where real and unreal are mixed, seen and unseen come together.

Ramsey 1951.

Ramsey then goes on to quote several other songs that reference this escape or wish fulfillment through (day dreams) and, on the occasion, transcribes the bit from «Irene» as:

«Irene, good night, Irene good night,
Good night Irene, good night Irene,
I kiss you in my dreams …» (Irene, FP 4)

Ramsey 1951.

Since Ramsey mentions Folkways FP 4 as the source, it is clear that he refers to the versions «SC-261» or «SC-261-1» from 1943, both on FP 4 (cf. my bio-discography of Lead Belly for such session-details). Now, Ramsey isn’t just anybody – he met and recorded Lead Belly in his late sessions. But apart from this supposed authority on the subject matter, I find his lyrical assembly of quotes about dreamy wish fulfillment persuasive: This again makes a stronger claim that Lead Belly dream-wishes that he «gets» or «kisses» Irene, rather than the line not fitting in this logic: «I guess you’re in my dreams».

But Wolfe/Lornell go on to say this:

The first time he recorded the song on disc, in 1933, he sang only two verses and two choruses, including the slightly ominous refrain «I’ll get you in my dreams». A year later he recorded it with four verses and four refrains.

Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 56.

I agree with their assessment that it sounds most like «get» in the 1933-chorus (version 120-A-1) which is the only complete chorus from that year that includes the line. Very generally, it coud be heard as «kiss» with a mumbled «s» in the end. But «get» is what they decide on, so let’s take that as corroborating evidence.

Now, if we turn to what is audible on Lead Belly’s own recordings, there is little doubt about one thing: On several occasions, he clearly sings «I get you in my dreams». If you compare my harmonisation below, you see that I think there is no doubt about him singing this line on the versions 124-A-2 (1934) – starting with the second chorus, as the first is unclear to me –, 124-B-1 (1934) and SC-261-1 (1943). As opposed to SC-261-1, version SC-261 (1943) gives you this weird «get/kiss»-mixture, so that must have been the one Ramsey refers to in his transcription above.

If we now take a close listen to his other versions, we most of the time end up with a word that sound like «giss» or even «gass». At one point I though this might be a dialectal version of «catch» (as in «I catss you in my dreams»), and it also occured to me that it could simply be a dialectal «I gets you» – because Lead Belly pretty systematically uses this conjugation on all other verbs in the song, «I lives», «I loves», «I haves», but I don’t know enough about the nature of Lead Belly’s idiom to know if this is even remotely plausible from a linguistic perspective. American dialectologists, please let me know if «I gets» was a plausible form.

Anyway, if you are primed by textual knowledge about the «kiss»-version, most of these can pretty reliably sound like «kiss». The version where I’m really struggling to hear a difference between «kiss you» and «guess you’re» is version 44-A (1935).

Two last points on the «I guess you’re in my dreams»-variant: First, I must say I can hear «guess(ed)» on some occasions, but I have to force myself to hear «you’re in my dreams», it is usually a clear «you in my dreams» to me. Also, in later versions (from 1944 onwards), it becomes a more clearly pronounced «I guessed you’re in my dreams». The past tense makes even less poetic sense to me – it seems like a bowlderized versions of «kissed» to me.

This is also why I don’t quote more of Lead Belly’s numerous later Irene-versions because even though he clearly gravitated to what sounds like «I guess you in my dreams», the problems fundamentally remain the same: Even with better and clearer recording (and Lead Belly having adapted his singing for white audiences), it is hard to know whether we’re dealing with a dialectal «kiss», «gets» or «guess» (compare especially version 413-3A, 1944). But more importantly: Folk lyrics change. At this point of Lead Belly’s career, we’re dealing with lyrical adaptation by Lead Belly for the audiences he played for. In the version FC 7533 (1945), I hear a clear «I guessed you in my dreams», but at that point he had also changed the lyrics of «take morphine and die» to «run away and fly». As in the Weavers’ version (see below), «getting» and «kissing» maybe wasn’t deemed suitable for mainstream (and children) audiences, so «guessing» might have become a valid option from 1944 onwards.

Taken all of this together, I’d say we end up with the following for the versions up until 1943:

  1. There is clear textual evidence for «I kiss you in my dreams», clear auditive evidence for it in Bob Ledbetter’s version and plausible auditive evidence in Lead Belly’s versions
  2. There is clear auditive evidence for the variant «I get you in my dreams». Some of Lead Belly’s versions leave no doubt.
  3. There is clear «poetic» evidence for both these variants, that is to say: they simply make sense, even in a larger thematic context of Lead Belly’s lyrical motifs
  4. There is some auditive, little poetic and no textual evidence for «I guess(ed) you(’re) in my dreams»

As corroborated evidence goes, I’d say Lead Belly sings a dialectal «I kiss» on some, and «I get» on other versions. Having said that, none of this disproves the «I guess you’re in my dreams»-version which remains plausible, why not? But it remains the least supported version by corroboration. As a last resort, I’d propose a dialectal «I gets», until an expert tells me that this form didn’t exist in the idioms spoken then.

Cover versions

The story could but doesn’t have to end here. How did prominent cover versions handle this textual unclarity? To spoil the harmonisation of lyrics I made below: There is a strong preference to use the completely different line «I’ll see you in my dreams» – this is easily explained as this stems from the cleaned-up version by the Weavers which was a 1950-hit that made the song as famous as it is nowadays in the first place. No kissing or «getting» in this mainstream folk context (cf. Ek 2014)! Even Mississippi John Hurt uses this line in his 1966-version – he announces it as «Lead Belly’s song» in the spoken intro, says that he «learned it off the record» and then continues to sing a song that structurally uses the lyrics from the Weavers’, not Lead Belly’s, version. So hilariously and wonderfully for folk authenticity and pop history, Mississippi John Hurt most likely learned this song from the Weavers’ hit record. Eric Clapton’s 2013 also shares this approach of using the song in the form it first entered the mass audience’s mind: as the Weavers-version.

Then, more reconstructionist artists like Ry Cooder (1976) and Tom Waits (2006) both opt for lyrical structures the pretty much exactly resemble one of Lead Belly’s version. Ry Cooder clearly goes with «I’ll get you in my dreams» in the chorus, while Tom Waits, in typical fashion, sort of recreates Lead Belly’s «kiss/get» mixture as «giss». Waits gives no lyrics in the liner notes for this song.

As an example of continued oral folk permutation, Dr. John’s version from 1992 just uses general musical and lyrical elements of the earlier version to come up with something very different. He turns the music into a big-bandish boogie and the song is not about yearning, scrounging, suicide and loss (with a dream as escape), but about desire, sex and partying, balling down the river while screaming «I wanna get you into my dream!» Of course, Dr. John pays his dues as a reconstructionist as well, at one point introducing a female choir which sings the exact lyrics of the Weavers’ chorus.

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it. For what I’ve exactly heard, uncertainties included, compare below harmonisation of the different versions I mentioned. Sources are below.

 Lead Belly 120-A-1Lead Belly 120-A-6Lead Belly 120-A-7Lead Belly 124-A-2 (1934)Lead Belly 124-B-1 (1934)Lead Belly 44-A (1935)Lead Belly 44-B-1 (1935)Irene SC-261-1 (1943)Irene (SC-261) (1943)Bob Ledbetter (1940)Weavers (1950)Mississippi John Hurt (1966)Ry Cooder (1976)Dr. John (1992)Tom Waits (2006)Eric Clapton (2013)
INTRO / CHORUSIrene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get/kiss (?) you in my dreams
ø Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get/kiss (?) you in my dreams
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams + Spoken Intro
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I get you in my dreams
øIrene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Irene goodnight, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
Spoken Intro + Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I will see you in my dream
øøIrene goodnight, Irene, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
ø
VERSE 1One day, one day, one day
Irene was a-walkin’ along
Last word that I heard her say
«I want you to sing one song»
I asked your mother for you
She told me that you was too young
I wish dear Lord that I’d never seen your face
I’m sorry  you ever was born
 Quit ramblin‘ and quit gamblin‘
Quit staying out late at night
Come home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright
 I asked your mother for you
She told me you was too young
I wish dear Lord that I’d never seen your face
I’m sorry you ever was born
 Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I have the great notion
Jumpin‘ in, into the river and drown
I asked your mother for you
She told me that you was too young
I wish dear Lord,that  I’d never seen your face
I’m sorry you ever was born
Last Saturday night I’ve got married
Me and my wife settled down
Me and my wife is parted now
I’m goin‘ take a stroll uptown
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
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometime I take great notion
Jump in the river and drown
I asked your mother for you
She told me that you was too young
I wish dear Lord never have seen your face
And I’m sorry that you ever been born
Last night as I laid in my bed a-sleepin’
Last night as I laid down across my bed
Last night I had myself a nightmare
I had a dream, I had a dream
My little Irene was dead
Last Saturday night I got married
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife are parted
I’m gonna take me a little stroll uptown
Last Saturday night I got married
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife are parted
Gonna take another stroll down town
CHORUS Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
(scrambled)
(possible continuation of 120-A-6, scrambled)… in my dreamsIrene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you / guess you’re (?) in my dreams + Spoken Interlude
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I get you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss (?) you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Irene goodnight, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I will see you in my dream
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
I had to say now:
Goodnight Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I wanna get you, I wanna get you
Wanna get you into my dream
Irene goodnight, Irene, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
VERSE 2  Stop ramblin‘ and stop gamblin‘
Quit staying out late at night
Come home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright
Last Friday night, I got married
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife have parted
Gonna take me a stroll uptown
 Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I have the great notion
Jumpin‘ into the river and drown
 Stop ramblin‘ and stop gamblin‘
quit stayin‘ out late at night
Go home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright
Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I haves the great notion
Jumpin‘ in, into the river and drown
Quit ramblin‘, quit gamblin‘
Quit staying out late at home(– at night!)
Come home to your wife and  family
Sit down by the fire[?]side bright
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump into the river and drown
Stop ramblin‘, stop gamblin‘
stop stayin‘ out late at night
Go home to your wife and family
And stay by the fireside bright
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump into the river and drown
Last Saturday night we got married
Last Saturday night we sho’ got down
Last Saturday night we went sailin’ down the river
We swung that little boat
And we almost drowned
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown
Stop ramblin‘, stop your gamblin‘
stop stayin‘ out late at night
Come home to your wife and your family
And sit by the fire so bright
CHORUS  Irene goodnight, Irene (scrambled fade-out)Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you / guess you’re (?) in my dreams + Spoken Interlude
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I get you in my dreams (Fade out)
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss (?) you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Irene goodnight, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I will see you in my dream
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams (+ instrumental chorus)
I had to say now:
Goodnight Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I wanna get you, I wanna get you
Get you into my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
VERSE 3   I asked your mother for you
She told me that you was too young
I wish dear Lord that I’d never seen your face
 I’m sorry you ever was born
 You cause me to weep and you cause me to moan
You cause me to leave my home
The last words I heard her said
„I want you to sing this song“
  Stop ramblin‘ and stop gamblin‘
quit stayin‘ out late at night
Go home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright
 Stop ramblin‘, stop your gamblin‘
stop stayin‘ out late at night
Go home to your wife and your family
Stay there by your fireside bright
øI loves Irene, God knows I do
Loves her till the sea runs dry
If Irene turns her back on me
I’m gonna take morphine and die
øI loves Irene, God knows I do
Loves her till the sea runs dry
If she ever loves another
I’m gonna take morphine and die
I loves Irene, God knows I do
Loves her till the rivers run dry
If Irene should ever turn her back on me
Gonna take morphine and die
CHORUS   Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you / guess you’re (?) in my dreams + Spoken Interlude
  Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss (?) you in my dreams
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams (Repeat + Fade-Out)
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I will see you in my dream
ø(Female choir:) Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnigt Irene, goodnight Irene
I will see you in my dream
Irene goodnight, Irene, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
VERSE 4   One day, one day, one day
Irene was a-walkin‘ along
Last words that I heard her say
„I want you to sing this song“
 Last Friday night, I got married
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife have parted
Gonna take me a stroll uptown
  I loves Irene, God knows I do
Love her ‚til the sea run dry
If Irene turns her back on me
I’m gonna take morphine and die
   Stop ramblin‘ and stop gamblin‘
Quit stayin‘ out late at night
Come home into your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright
Sometime I wanna drink
Sometime I wanna gamble
Sometime I wanna stay out all night long
Lord, but when I’m lovin’ my little Irene
I wanna love the girl
Love her on and on and on and on…
Stop your ramblin‘, stop your gamblin‘
Stop stayin‘ out late at night
Go home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the firelight
ø
CHORUS    ø (possible continuation of 124-A-2)Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you / guess you’re (?) in my dreams
      Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
Yeah yeah
Goodnight Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I wanna get you, I wanna get you
Get you into my dream
(Everybody!) Irene goodnight, Irene, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I kiss you in my dreams (Repetition + Fade-Out)
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
VERSE 5    …And she caused me to moan
She caused me to leave my home
Last words that I heared her say
„I’m sorry you ever was known“
 ø         
CHORUS    Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
 (possible continuation / re-start of 44-A) Spoken Intro         
VERSE 7    I love Irene, God knows I do
Love her ‚til the sea runs dry
If Irene turns her back on me
I’m gonna take morphine and die
 I love Irene, God knows I do
Love her ‚til the sea run dry
If Irene turn her back on me
I’m gonna take morphine and die
         
CHORUS    Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams
 Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I get you in my dreams + Spoken Interlude
         
       ø         
       Spoken Interlude + Hummed Chorus Ending         

Sources:

  • Ek, Kirstin: «A Precipice Between Deadly Perils»: American Folk Music and the Mass Media, 1933–1959. Dissertation University of Virginia 2014.
  • Lornell, Christopher «Kip»: «Goodnight, Irene»–Leadbelly (1933). Added to the National Registry: 2003. Essay by Christopher Lornell (guest post). Library of Congress. URL: http://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/GoodnightIrene.pdf
  • Wolfe, Charles and Kip Lornell: The Life & Legend of Leadbelly. New York: Harper Collins 1992.
  • Ramsey, Frederic Jr.: Liner notes for Leadbelly’s Early Recordings, Legacy Volume 3 (Folkways FA 2024, 1951).