Baby Please Don't Go by Big Joe Williams

Label: Bluebird Records.
Release Date: 1935.
Recording Time: 3:22 minutes.
Release Info: 10-inch 78 rpm, B-side "Wild Cow Blues".
Recording Date: October 31, 1935 in Chicago, IL.
Songwriter: Traditional (J. Williams credited on record); Producer: Lester Melrose.

Styles: Delta Blues, Acoustic Blues, Regional Blues, Pre-War Country Blues, Country Blues.

"Baby, Please Don't Go" is a blues song which has been called "one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history" by music historian Gerard Herzhaft. Its roots have been traced back to nineteenth-century American songs which deal with themes of bondage and imprisonment. Delta blues musician Big Joe Williams popularized the song with several versions beginning in 1935.

"Baby, Please Don't Go" is likely an adaptation of "Long John", an old folk theme which dates back to the time of slavery in the United States. Blues researcher Paul Garon notes that the melody is based on "Alabamy Bound", composed by Tin Pan Alley writer Ray Henderson, with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva and Bud Green in 1925. The song, a vaudeville show tune, inspired several other songs between 1925 and 1935, such as "Elder Greene Blues", "Alabama Bound", and "Don't You Leave Me Here". These variants were recorded by Charlie Patton, Lead Belly, Monette Moore, Henry Thomas, and Tampa Red. Author Linda Dahl suggests a connection to a song with the same title by Mary Williams Johnson in the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, Johnson, who was married to jazz-influenced blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, never recorded it and her song is not discussed as influencing later performers. Blues researcher Jim O'Neal notes that Williams "sometimes said that the song was written by his wife, singer Bessie Mae Smith (aka Blue Belle and St. Louis Bessie, not the same as the popular Bessie Smith of the 1920s and 1930s)".

Big Joe Williams used the imprisonment theme for his October 31, 1935, recording of "Baby, Please Don't Go". He recorded it during his first session for Lester Melrose and Bluebird Records in Chicago. It is an ensemble piece with Williams on vocal and guitar accompanied by Dad Tracy on one-string fiddle and Chasey "Kokomo" Collins on washboard, who are listed as "Joe Williams' Washboard Blues Singers" on the single. Musical notation for the song indicates a moderate-tempo fifteen-bar blues in 4/4 or common time in the key of B flat. As with many Delta blues songs of the era, it remains on the tonic chord (I) throughout without the progression to the subdominant (IV) or dominant (V) chords. The lyrics express a prisoner's anxiety about his lover leaving before he returns home:

Now baby please don't go, now baby please don't go
Baby please don't go back to New Orleans, and get your cold ice cream
I believe there's a man done gone, I believe there's a man done gone
I believe there's a man done gone to the county farm, with a long chain on

The song became a hit and established Williams' recording career. On December 12, 1941, he recorded a second version titled "Please Don't Go" in Chicago for Bluebird, with a more modern arrangement and lyrics. Blues historian Gerard Herzhaft calls it "the most exciting version", which Williams recorded using his trademark nine-string guitar. Accompanying him are Sonny Boy Williamson I on harmonica and Alfred Elkins on imitation bass (possibly a washtub bass). Since both songs appeared before recording industry publications began tracking such releases, it is unknown which version was more popular. In 1947, he recorded it for Columbia Records with Williamson and Ransom Knowling on bass and Judge Riley on drums. This version did not reach the Billboard Race Records chart, but represents a move toward a more urban blues treatment of the song.

Song Review by Bill Janovitz

Dubious songwriting credits to the contrary, Big Joe Williams wrote and recorded the earliest known (1935) version of "Baby Please Don't Go," a song that has survived virtually unchanged from the Mississippi Delta to British hard rock. Sure, some guitarists like Angus Young and Ted Nugent have offered slick and fancy licks over breakneck tempos in their versions, but the song remains the same, to quote a phrase. In fact, take a listen to Lightnin' Hopkins' solo version from 1967 if you want impressive fretwork.

The confusion over songwriting credit can at least in some part be attributed to the give-and-take oral folk and blues tradition. According to the website, Leonard Caston recorded a version between the two by Williams, and by the second Williams take, Big Joe was incorporating some of Caston's lyrical changes, such as the line "Make you walk the log." It is likely that Williams adapted the song from the old chain-gang song "Another Man Done Gone," which also inspired or was inspired by other blues songs such as "Alabama Bound" and "Don't Leave Me Here."

Williams was what they called a "walking" musician, a Southern blues version of the troubadour or wandering minstrel. He would play juke joints, work camps, dances -- anywhere that would have him. He was an influential and innovative guitarist who played his own hot-rodded guitars that ranged anywhere from one- to nine-string variations of the instrument. "Baby Please Don't Go" was from his second known recording session, in 1935, for the Victor subsidiary Bluebird. This version was cut with a fiddle and washboard accompaniment, but it is the later 1941 recording, now named simply "Please Don't Go," with a fuller band and more contemporary sound, that is the version that influenced subsequent covers of the song. Here, his verse lines are sung in a call-and-response with John Lee, aka Sonny Boy Williamson. Williams likens the hold his woman has on him to both being kept as a pet and shackled in prison, thus the allusion to "Another Man Done Gone": "Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go back to New Orleans/You know I love you so, baby please don't go...Don't call my name, you got me way down here/Wearing a ball and chain."

The most likely link between the Williams recordings and all the rock covers that came in the 1960s and 1970s would be the Muddy Waters 1953 Chess side, which retains the same swinging phrasing as the Williams takes, but the session musicians beef it up with a steady driving rhythm section, electrified instruments, and Little Walter Jacobs wailing on blues harp. John Lee Hooker also recorded "Baby Please Don't Go" for Chess in 1952 and again for Riverside in 1959, but the song remains more closely identified with Waters. Hooker's early version is a link in the chain between Williams' more deliberate take and Waters' rocking recording. Them scored a Top Ten hit in the U.K. with its famously frenetic single (later available on Them Featuring Van Morrison (1987)) that features sessionman Jimmy Page shredding a wicked solo that forever colored the song, though the credit is not without controversy; Them's guitarist, Billy Harrison, claims that he at least created -- if not recorded -- the famous riff that forms the backbone of the arrangement, and at least one other bandmember insists that it is not Page playing the part. Alan Henderson plays the amphetamine-rush, pulsing two-note bass line that was later lifted by Golden Earring for "Radar Love." Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes scored some success in America with Them's arrangement in 1968. Mose Allison also recorded the song in his hip and laid-back style in 1961 on V-8 Ford Blues.