Hesitation Blues (deep history of a dirty blues)

I heard this one, yet again, from Dave Van Ronk, who got it from Reverend Gary Davis,* but either of us could have learned it from any number of other sources. Indeed, this song became somewhat a bane of my existence in the 1970s, because whenever some musician or musicians who were roughly my age came by with mandolins, guitars, or something of that sort and asked if they could sit in (it happened rarely, but it happened), they were likely to ask if I knew “Hesitation Blues,” and then, inevitably, after maybe following up with “Winin’ Boy,” they’d want to play “Friend of the Devil…”

At that point I’d never heard Hot Tuna (who also got this song from Davis) and was only vaguely aware of the Grateful Dead, but for a lot of kids my age or a few years older, that was the only reference point for anything that sounded like what I played, and I got pretty tired of it — though when I eventually did an opening act gig with Jorma Kaukonen, he sounded great and was very nice to me.


I did a deep dive into the history of  “Hesitation Blues” for my book on the censorship of early Black blues and jazz, Jelly Roll Blues, and suggest that it  was the first twelve-bar blues to be known throughout the country, circulating in print and reworked in oral tradition, mostly in versions that were far too dirty to be printed or recorded. Robert Winslow Gordon and Hubert Canfield both collected multiple versions in the 1920s, and Jelly Roll Morton recalled one for Alan Lomax that he’d apparently heard in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Most versions seem to have included verses in the same basic pattern:

I ain’t no butcher, no butcher’s son,
But I can cut your meat until the butcher comes.

I ain’t no milkman, no milkman’s son,
But I can pull your titties till the milkman comes.

I ain’t no sergeant, no sergeant’s son,
But I can handle your privates till the sergeant comes…

…and so on, as well as such straightforwardly descriptive verses as, from Canfield’s collection:

A fist full of teats, and a mouth full of tongue,
Takes a long peckered daddy to make his baby come.**

As best I can tell, this was normally a group song, the point being to keep adding and improvising verses until everyone ran out of ideas or got bored. Like a lot of dirty blues that were popular in oral tradition, it was cleaned up and published when blues caught on in the teens, with competing sheet music versions appearing in 1915 by W. C. Handy, the self-proclaimed “Father of the Blues,” and the white team of Scott Middleton and Billy Smythe. It seems to have first been recorded in 1919 by Al Bernard, a white singer who had a close relationship with Handy, and then by various singers, both black and white, through the twenties and beyond, surviving as a rural standard.

Between the published and oral/dirty versions, it seems to be one of the songs, like “Frankie and Johnny,” that was known everywhere from juke joints to college dorms in the days before Prohibition curtailed the tradition of men gathering to drink and sing in public places where women were not permitted (or where the only women were working), and hence tended to revel in this kind of thing. (This practice survived, of course, in some enduringly all-male environments, and many dirty songs in turn-of-the-twentieth-century folklore collections are still sung as “rugby songs” — though not, as far as I know, this one.) (One neat twist being that, with the appearance of female rugby players, such songs are now also sung in some all-female environments. For all I know, they always were, but no folklorists happened to be present.)

* As Dave Van Ronk explained, Reverend Davis refused to sing songs like this in later years, regarding them as sinful, but would sometimes get around that by playing the melody while speaking the verses. In a particularly extended recording, he goes on for over ten minutes, including plenty of “Ain’t no _____, no ______’s son” variations.

** Mark Ross recalls hearing Van Ronk sing a similarly explicit verse to “Hesitation” during a guest set at the Gaslight Cafe in the late 1960s:
Pussy ain’t nothing but meat on a bone,
You can fuck it, you can suck it, you can leave it alone.
And to demonstrate the continuity of the folk process, that same couplet took a victory lap in 1990 as a chant ending 2 Live Crew’s “Face Down, Ass Up.” (Which they followed with a gender twist, asking the “ladies” to chant along with “A dick ain’t nothing but…”