It’s been a while since my last Cover/Uncovered. For the uninitiated, it’s a feature where I explore a song in which I first heard the covered version – and subsequently learned of the original, or ‘uncovered’ it.
This installment explores a blues/bluegrass standard that’s just about as close to ‘traditional’ as you can get. Written in 1914 and has since gathered more than thirty verses, the refrain being the only consistent part.
How long have I got to wait
Can I get you now
Or must I hesitate?
My introduction to the song came from Old Crow Medicine Show’s 2001 album Eutaw. The band treats the song fairly traditionally, Ketch Secor’s fiddle carrying the melody that will become familiar soon enough. Willie Watson begins with a verse heard nowhere else:
I was born in England, raised in France. Aw, they sent the coathanger, wouldn’t send the pants.
but the second verse is present in nearly every version, and might just be my favorite:
I was raised in Alabama, born in Tennessee. If you don’t like my peaches, don’t you shake on my tree.
Cover: Old Crow Medicine Show - Hesitation Blues
Since finding the song, I’ve located quite of few live bootleg versions from some of my favorite artists. Scott Avett does what sounds like an impromptu version that reveals the often indiscernable lyrics. He begins with a common verse:
If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to bottom and I’d never come up.
Cover: The Avett Brothers - Hesitation Blues (live)
My favorite version from my library is performed by none other that Justin Townes Earle. Justin fingerpicks that lovely melody all while strumming the rhythm and delivering an impassioned performance. He includes a verse I’ve yet to hear elsewhere:
Now I ain’t the doctor, but I’m the doctor’s son. Mama, I can play the doctor ’til the doctor come.
Cover: Justin Townes Earle - Hesitation Blues (live)
Moving to some older recordings, we find the Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk, doing his version of the staple from back in 1960. Blues legend Leadbelly included a recording of the song on what would become his last ever recordings, done in 1948.
Cover: Dave Van Ronk - Hesitation Blues
Cover: Leadbelly - Hesitation Blues
Most songs this old, with so little consistency within the lyrics can’t be traced back to any one writer. But the men that wrote ‘Hesitation Blues’ just so happened to be in the music publishing business. Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton, and Art Gillham formed a band in 1914, and while on the road, penned multiple verses to go along with the above-mentioned chorus. One of the earliest recordings of the song was done by Art Gillham, also known as The Whispering Pianist. His lyrics show that the song was always meant to be lighthearted and improvised:
I’m going down to the levee. Gonna make a rocking chair. If the blues don’t leave, gonna rock away from there.
I had a sweet mama, so bashful and shy. When she mends her underwear, she plugs the needle’s eye.
A doctor’s in love with my girl, they say. I got her eating apples just to keep him away.
You must love your neighbor, like the good book say. But that don’t mean to love her when the husband’s away.
Uncovered: Art Gillham - Hesitation Blues