This video this is almost certainly footage from March/April 1935, shot in Wilton, CT., probably at the home of friends of the Lomaxes. John and Alan Lomax were anthropologists and music historians who collected songs to preserve in the Library of Congress.
The specific origins of “Irene” are unclear. Lead Belly was singing a version of the song as early as 1908, which he claimed to have learned from his uncles Terell and Bob.
“Irene” has pretty accurately been reported to have been written in about 1888 by a man from Dayton, Ohio named Gussie L. Davis. It was picked up by the minstrel shows who traveled the country. It was probably sung in Shreveport where Lead Belly’s uncle, who was a musical man himself, brought it home.
Changing old songs into new ones was something Lead Belly may have picked up during the many years he spent in prison. Over the course of nearly 25 years, he served four different sentences: two for assault, one for attempted homicide and one for murder. This gave him lots of time to listen to, and learn, the music of older inmates.
While made widely known by Lead Belly, this song was also a major hit for a group called The Weavers, featuring a young Pete Seeger. Seeger says Lead Belly must have made a few changes to the original tune.
He changed everything he ever sung. I’ve seen in a book the words with a completely different tune printed way back in the 19th century, but not the exact same words, just the chorus and maybe the first verse. He added verses, and he completely changed the tune.
This single first reached the Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart on June 30, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1 for 13 weeks. 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. Billboard ranked this version as the No. 1 song of 1950.
Often cited as a major influence on the history of Folk, Country, and even the Blues, the song has been covered by other artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ry Cooder, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Dr. John, and Tom Waits, and many others. Here’s a version by Eric Clapton: