The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and “Goodnight, Irene”

leadbelly.jpgNote: Like many of you, I’ve really enjoyed Jennifer’s and Vanda’s posts about football songs over the past couple of weeks, and I thought I’d add my own contribution with a look at the history of one of the strangest supporter songs in football—”Goodnight, Irene,” an American folk song about love and suicide that’s been the anthem of Bristol Rovers for almost 60 years.

Bristol Rovers Football Club and the musician known as Leadbelly were both born in the 1880s, but—for a while, at least—they both had different names. The football club was founded, by a 19-year-old schoolteacher, in 1883, in a restaurant in one of England’s major seaports; they happened to wear black kits, and to play on a pitch next to a rugby team called the Arabs, and to mark both facts, they called themselves Black Arabs F.C. The musician was born, sometime around 1888, on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana; he was named Huddie William Ledbetter—presumably to mark nothing at all.

Today, of course, Bristol Rovers are as associated with “Goodnight, Irene,” Leadbelly’s most famous recording, as any English club with any song. They’ve been singing it since the 1950s, a full decade before “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was heard at Anfield, 30 years before Manchester City fans began to chant “Blue Moon.” But the path that led to the association was chancy and circuitous, and in many ways, both Rovers and Leadbelly are lucky that they survived long enough for the song and the club’s fans to find each other.

Leadbelly lived through the old, weird America, as Greil Marcus would call it: deep swamp dance hall nights, brothels at St. Paul’s Bottoms, hobos on freight trains, chain gangs, Satan at the crossroads, impossible stars overhead. He was a “musicianer” as early as 1903, and learned in the red-light districts of riverboat towns to channel the mournful twang of American folk music into something distinctive and personal, made from his clear voice and his oversized 12-string guitar. He drank rotgut and fought anyone, and his prowess at one or the other resulted in the nickname he would later take on stage.

He went to prison, not for the first time, in 1918—for murder, after killing a man in a fight. He had a 35-year sentence, but was released just two years later after he wrote a song appealing to the governor for clemency. In 1930 he was in jail again, this time for attempted homicide; and it was here that he was discovered by John Lomax, the legendary musicologist, who traveled the country making recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. With the help of another susceptible governor, Lomax arranged Leadbelly’s release, and recorded his versions of hundreds of songs—including “Goodnight, Irene,” an obscure number from the late nineteenth century that Leadbelly claimed to have learned from an uncle.

Black Arabs F.C. became Eastville Rovers in 1884, then Eastville Bristol Rovers in the late 1890s. In 1899, under their current name, they joined the Southern League, just in time for the great era of regional league play before the formation of the national Third Division. They were champions in 1905. During Leadbelly’s first serious prison stint, they were suspended for the First World War; they reformed, and joined the Football League as members of the new Third Division, around the time he was released. They stayed afloat during the ’30s, but signed a bad lease on their ground that would cause them trouble for decades, and finished last in the division in 1938-39.


The same year, Leadbelly was back in jail for assault. He’d struggled throughout the ’30s to make a living, despite the exposure he won as a protegee of John Lomax; record companies tried to turn him into a blues singer, which never really suited his style. But he was out of jail in 1940, and found himself in Greenwich Village just at the moment when the folk scene was forming: he befriended and influenced Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and experienced greater success in the 1940s than in any other decade of his life. He died in 1949, after falling ill during his first tour of Europe.

That same year, Pete Seeger’s group, the Weavers, released a cover of “Goodnight, Irene” that spent 25 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #1.

It was the Billboard Single of the Year, and was quickly covered by any number of other musicians, including Frank Sinatra.

It worked its way to England, where it reached Bristol and became, by the end of the 1950-51 season, one of the Rovers fans’ favorite songs. There are any number of legends to explain the supporters’ adoption of a plaintive and slightly mystical American folk melody as their anthem, a song whose lyrics don’t exactly advertise their suitability for the purpose:

Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I take a great notion,
Jumpin’ into the river and drown.

I love Irene, God knows I do,
Love her until the sea run dry,
And if Irene turns her back on me,
Gonna take morphine and die.

Possibly the most persuasive story is that Plymouth Argyle fans sang the song to taunt Rovers supporters after Argyle took the lead in a match. When Rovers went on to win 3-1, their fans turned the taunt around and began to sing “Goodnight, Argyle.” And the song stuck. Something about it just fit.

I love thinking about the loose threads of beauty and meaning in this world and the way they sometimes come together in football. I love imagining Leadbelly playing in a smoky shack to an audience of hellhounds and moonshine runners while five thousand miles away a group of men with kestrel stares and pushbroom mustaches took the pitch in their high-waisted professional short pants. I love the way a game played by the children of lords and a suicide moan from the American folk tradition can make something bizarre and powerful today, something unifying, in a context that makes perfect sense to us, though it would baffle the people who invented them.

Brian Phillips is jumping in the river nightly at The Run of Play.

15 thoughts on “The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and “Goodnight, Irene”

  1. historyman

    Another fascinating piece! I suppose that being a Bristol Rovers fan over many years would qualify one for free morphine prescriptions on the NHS.

    Maybe this should be part of a wider debate, but don’t English fans, in general, revel in being melancholy more than their European counterparts? Would a ‘Goodnight Irene’ type of song catch on amongst supporters abroad?

    You should experience the lows in order to better appreciate the highs. Otherwise, supporting your team would be a monotonous experience.

  2. Ian

    There are plenty more very idiosyncratic songs out there, Historyman – I spent the afternoon singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” at the Eastbourne Borough vs St Albans City match (along with “We’re shit, and we’re going down”, but that’s a different matter). “Deliliah” at Stoke City, “Keep Right On To The End Of The Road” at Birmingham City, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at West Ham (which must win some sort of prize for melancholy), “On The Ball City at Norwich City (which, I think, is the oldest football song of all) and (as Tom will well know) “Sussex By The Sea” at Brighton & Hove Albion are amongst the many that spring to mind.

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  4. Brian

    Historyman, that’s an interesting question about the preponderance of melancholy songs among English club anthems. I don’t know enough about supporter songs on the continent to answer it definitively, but the ones that spring to mind tend to be more club-specific and conventionally anthemic (“FC Bayern, star of the south, we will never go down”). Maybe someone with more knowledge of songs in the Eerste Divisie or something could think of more exceptions.

    Ian, “Deliliah” has to be near the top of my list of strange football anthems. “How can we show our love for our club?” I imagine the Stoke City supporters saying to each other. “Clearly, by singing a song about a man who stabs his cheating girlfriend to death.” The strangest thing is that it was written by the same songwriters who did the completely conventional “Marching on Together” anthem for Leeds.

    It’s not the first time this has been said on this site in the past few weeks, but someone should really write a book about this stuff.

  5. Gerry Prewett

    Great story and the legend of the Plymouth Argyle game seems to be the most frequently remembered although it is said that Rovers fans sang “Goodnight Argyle”. During that season Rovers reached the 6th Round of the FA Cup and played the great Newcastle United team at St James Park, This was the game that the song was first heard constantly. The replay at a packed Eastville the following Tuesday also heard “Irene” sung and the song has stuck ever since. I now live in Perth in Western Australia but in Saturday night half a dozen of us GasHeads got together at the Casino to watch the game on the big screen and Goodnight Irene was heard much to the bemusement of everyone else as 50 years on Rovers once again reached the 6th Round of the Cup!

  6. historyman

    Regarding my comments in post 1, I ‘ve finally remembered where I read about English fans revelling in being melancholy.

    It’s in David Winner’s, “Those Feet – An Intimate History of English football.” It has a chapter entitled ‘It’s Cold and we’re Rubbish”, which explores the miserabilism of being a supporter of an English football club. Winner argues that this is an extension of the English character in general.

  7. Brian

    Gerry, congratulations on a great win! What a scene that must have been in Perth. I was especially happy because I wrote about Hereford on The Run of Play the day before they won their third-round match, and now Bristol Rovers have made it to the 6th round right after my post about them. If you’re a fan of a small club, I’m prepared to use this power for a small fee. Just send me an email and we’ll work out the details.

    Historyman, I haven’t read the book, but the argument sounds plausible. Bristol Rovers got handed a favorable home draw against West Bromwich Albion today—here’s hoping they can make it to the semi-finals and spare themselves melancholy for at least one more round!

  8. Tom Dunmore

    It’s certainly true that wallowing in misery is an English pastime, and there is very much that tendency in English football. E.g., the perverse joy of suffering in the wind and rain as one of 547 fans watching a meaningless Auto Windscreens Shield first round tie on a Wednesday night, something I remember strangely fondly myself.

    Though on a semi-related note, I didn’t think that Winner captured English football with the incisive brilliance in that book as he did Dutch football with Brilliant Orange: perhaps because he’s English.

  9. JD

    great story – i am loving reading these articles – it is such a rich topic, and a great chance for fans to share their knowledge & passion!


  10. Gerry.Prewett

    Brian, I actually got the local ABC Radio Station to play Goodnight Irene every Friday morning prior to Rovers games. They followed Rovers for a season AND palyed a different version each week. Versions by Rolf Harris (fantastic) Brian Wilson, Alex Harvey, the Scotts Dragood Guards, Van Morrison stick in the memory. To hear ‘Irene” at Wembley in the Play-Off Final was amazing, to hear it in an FA Cup Semi-Final would make the few remaining hairs on the backl of my neck stand up. OK you have my e-mail what’s the deal LOL

  11. Yatesman

    A fantastically well researched story which was a joy to read and a joy to listen to.

    Goodnight Irene is the glue that binds Gasheads( Rovers fans collective nickname, another story there!) in the bad times and which they sing exaltant and triumphant in the good times. I was one of those singing at Wembley in the play off final in the video clip above and can say that when you’re amongst 35-40,000 gasheads belting out Goodnight Irene it does indeed make the hairs on the back of your neck tingle.

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  13. Soccer Rag

    This is an amazing piece, Brian – it also tells the story yet again why English football is so much more appealing globally, not only because of the very fascinating (and sometimes strange) history behind many clubs, but also the availability of such information to fans. While Bristol Rovers might not be particular well supported outside of English fans, historical facts like these provide so much anecdotal interest you cannot help but be pulled in.

  14. Rulo Vinello

    Very good written. I’ m loving reading these articles , it is such a rich topic, and a great chance for fans to share their knowledge & passion!