As the pictures above suggest, “Hesitation Blues” is one of those traditional tunes that has been recorded by a slew of artists for the last 100 years. A member Roud Folk Song Index, “Hesitation Blues” is a blues standard, and, true to form, it has been recorded in every which way, from lugubrious to effervescent. The lyric has also been transformed, each performer choosing his/her own verse configuration, the consistency coming with the familiar refrain:
How long do I have to wait
Can I get you now
Or must I hesitate?
Thankfully, for those who love music, the history of wonderful blues classics like “Hesitation Blues” has been tracked, and thus musicians have been able to perform the piece and transform it as the years have progressed. And, you will soon hear a few of these recordings – or you can just skip the history and listen to the song progress through the years by scrolling down. Go on, I wont be offended.
Oh, you stayed! Well, great. Let’s begin. What we know is the original versions of the song were published as two different adaptations, one by a three-person publishing team consisting of Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton, and Art Gillham, and one by W.C. Handy. The song spread from there, even ending up in Langston Hughes’ poem “Ask Your Mama,” where Hughes provided musical direction in the poem and used the chorus of the song to indicate his frustration with the slow pace of change in the country.
Perhaps the most fascinating story with the song, though, is from the 60s. I wrote about this before – check out that post here – and it is one of those obscure music nuggets that makes you smile. The Holy Modal Rounders, an esoteric folk/blues group in the 60s, recorded a version of “Hesitation Blues” in 1964, and, in one of their verses, the band used the lyric “psycho-delic” to describe feet, shoes, and blues. This was the first time anyone used the term psychedelic in a recorded song. Neat, right? In the liner notes, the Holy Modal Rounders thanked Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers, a band that recorded the song with the quintessential pre-1940s blues title of “If the River Was Whiskey.” In fact, Charlie Poole, who played the banjo in the string band that shared his name, succumbed to heart failure at 31 years old after a 13-week drinking bender (yes, 13 weeks). He recorded “If the River Was Whiskey” in 1930, and, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I bring it to you now.
That’s a jig in every sense of the word. Some of you are probably thinking, “oh, this song!” The song, like most recordings of it, is rather absurd. The singer is born here, raised there, doesn’t really know where he is and what he is doing, but he is clearly tired of waiting, which is a theme you better get used to. All in all, this is an excellent version, fulfilling the need for good ol’ fashioned folk. It’s not surprising the Holy Modal Rounders were inspired by Poole because their version sounds similar. Let’s check out a few more versions recorded at around the same time.
Jim Jackson’s guitar features a simple up-down strumming pattern that creates a rhythm that at times almost seems out-of-place with the song. That said, the Jackson’s version is certainly more rhythmic than others, and oddly enough, it kind-of sounds like the beginning of “I Need Never Get Old” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — ok very loosely.
Ok, how about one from Crying Sam Collins. Do you get why he was called “Crying”? That’s one bluesy falsetto. I can’t understand a lot of what he is saying, but I get the chorus, and that’s the essential portion. Collins’ version evinces why “Hesitation Blues” is such a fascinating song. Every version, Collins’ included, sounds different. It spawns uniqueness.
One more version – my person favorite. Here is Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk, performing “Hesitation Blues.” As you will hear soon, Ronk performs the piece with an almost lethargic rhythm, his nasally voice spurting out the lyric with a crooner’s confidence.