Leadbelly, whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter, developed the song while serving time on murder charges in Sugar Land, Texas from 1918-1925. He was pardoned by the governor after writing a song asking for his release
But in 1930, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) was once again jailed, this time in a state prison in Angola, Louisiana, convicted of attempted murder. In 1933, the anthropologist and music historian John Lomax came to Angola as part of a project for the Library of Congress: He was looking to record Black convicts to preserve their songs. The first several inmates he auditioned were unworthy, but Leadbelly had the goods. One of the songs that won Lomax over was "Goodnight Irene," which Leadbelly called "Irene."
In 1934, Lomax made more recordings of Leadbelly at the prison, and later that year, he was released (Lomax claimed that once again, he earned a pardon from the governor, but there's no evidence of that). In 1935, Lomax made another recording of Leadbelly performing the song, this time entering it into the Library of Congress.
"Goodnight Irene" became Leadbelly's signature; Lomax brought him north and showcased him as an authentic singing jailbird, reportedly making him wear striped clothes to simulate a prison uniform.
Leadbelly had no interest in being promoted as a tamed savage, and parted ways with Lomax a few months later, going on to record hundreds of songs. He was a huge influence on many artists, but had a hard time shaking the image Lomax established for him. In 1937, he was featured in a Life
magazine story called "Lead Belly - Bad Ni--er Makes Good Minstrel."
He also didn't profit much from his efforts: Leadbelly was broke when he died in 1949.