The singer describes how he courted Irene. Now he and his wife are parted. "And if Irene turns her back on me, gonna take morphine and die." Chorus: "Irene, goodnight, Irene, goodnight; Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I'll (get/see) you in my dreams."
Fuld quotes the Lomaxes to the effect that Lead Belly learned the chorus of this song from his uncle. Many of the verses can also be shown to be older. To what extent Lead Belly created this song, as opposed to reshaping the materials, cannot now be determined.
The 1888 song "Irene, Goodnight," sung by the Haverly Minstrels and credited by Spaeth to "Davis" (but dated 1892), is a separate piece. - RBW
The "Davis" cited by Spaeth is Gussie L. Davis, and according to Guy Logsdon & Jeff Place the date is 1887, not 1888. They note some melodic similarity to the song sung by Lead Belly.
According to Seeger, Lead Belly said Irene was a sixteen-year-old girl he knew, who took up with a rambler. - PJS