Possibly written in 1886 by a black janitor, Gussie Davis. Lead Belly's version recorded by John & Alan Lomax in the State Prison Farm of Angola, LA as Irene Part 1 & 2. Lead Belly was the first important catch of these Library of Congress field recorders, Irene their first major classic. Lead Belly learned it as a child from an uncle in 1909. That uncle, Bob Ledbetter, cut an Irene in 1940 for the same L.o.C. His wife Sylvie is the one Lead Belly sings about in Bring A Little Water, Sylvie (see there). In an interviev following the 1940 recording, Uncle Bob Ledbetter clears out he heard Irene from his brother, who brought it from up west. Huddie learned it from us. It's an urban legend the Lomax recordings influenced Lead Belly's immediate release. He wasn't freed until 1934 (for good behaviour).
Woody Guthrie [as Roll On Columbia and in '42 as Ramblin' Round]
Lead Belly & Sonny Terry [his first released version (on Asch), recorded that same year in New York]
Weavers [as Goodnight Irene with slightly altered lyrics Pete Seeger found in a Scottish songbook; millionseller US; royalties Alan Lomax obtained on behalf of his father were all reinvested in folk research in general and in his fieldtrips through Europe in particular; however, the fact father and son Lomax systematically took credits on folk field recordings they made, was and still is controversial; Bart Bull (Michelle Shocked's ex) found out there's no less than 890 compositions crediting Alan Lomax in the BMI files, 694 compositions crediting John A. Lomax; then there's ASCAP and probably some international collection societies too; in 1971, Gerry Sharp (Topic Records) along with A.L. Lloyd tried to obstruct genuine folk field recording (words and music) to be subject for copyright control, unless fees or a substantial portion thereof should go into a fund for research and such; it was outvoted]
Ernest Tubb & Red Foley [idem, n°1 C&W]
Frank Sinatra [idem]
Eddy Arnold [idem]
Weavers with Gordon Jenkins [n°1 US; the year after Lead Belly passed away]
Little Richard [with Jimi Hendrix in his band]
Originals [with Joe Stubbs]
Willie Nelson & Tom Petty [on Will The Circle Be Unbroken III]
Eric Clapton [all as Goodnight, Irene (or Irene, Goodnight)]
Forget about Goodnight Irene's presumed Tin Pan Alley- and minstrel show past. I once heard a live version at Joe Lee's pub in Tullamore (Co. Offaly, Ireland) sounding perfectly identical to any other Irish traditional they sing over there. Irish/Scottish roots are not excluded (see the Weavers' cover).