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Cuttin' Heads: Baby Please Don't Go

From Mississippi to Northern Ireland to Australia, this classic has inspired musicians from around the world. But can the original be beaten?

Baby Please Don’t Go is a foundation stone of the blues repertoire, one of the most revived, adapted and generally covered songs in blues history. Its own history as such seems to begin in the 1930s with that inveterate blues rambler Big Joe Williams. By the 50s it is on the way to becoming a standard, renewed constantly by leading blues artists of the day. Closer to our own time, it has been reinterpreted by artists as diverse as John Mooney, Jessie Mae Hemphill and Aerosmith. But its most potent transformation was made just over 50 years ago by a young Van Morrison, reclothing this old check-shirt-and-overalls blues in the snazzy modern clobber of British R&B.

Where Baby Please Don't Go comes from, way back, nobody knows. Some folklorists discern its origins in an old black folk song from slavery days, Long John, and link it to other songs about imprisonment and escape that share its themes and melody, such as I’m Alabama Bound, Another Man Done Gone and Don’t Leave Me Here. It isn’t a fixed text: the verses float in and out, sometimes from (or to) other songs, the only constant the refrain, ‘Baby, please don’t go/Back to New Orleans/You know I love you so.’ (Though this isn’t in Big Joe Williams’s original lyric, which has a somewhat puzzling reference to cold ice cream.)

Blues is full of these impermanent texts, shape-shifting with each new singer who adopts them. But from time to time someone makes a record of one of them that fixes it in the public imagination and memory, and thus a particular sequence of verses becomes the, so to speak, authorised version.

Williams first recorded Baby Please Don’t Go in 1935 with a band credited as his Washboard Blues Singers, shouting the lyric amid the knockabout street music of fiddle, guitar and washboard. Six years later he did it again, for the same label, Bluebird, but now titled simply Please Don’t Go. This was a stripped-down performance – just Big Joe on guitar, session bassist Alfred Elkins playing what may have been an early washtub bass, and Joe’s friend John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. But the combination of Joe’s gruff voice, the crying responses of Sonny Boy’s harmonica and the strong bass pulse gave it a dynamism that many subsequent users of the song would try to replicate. The record seems to have sold quite well, and there can be little doubt that this is the version that imprinted itself on the blues consciousness.

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