Friday, December 31, 2010

Three variations on "Hesitation Blues": Janis Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, and the Holy Modal Rounders

Here's Janis Joplin's take on a hoary pop standard, accompanied by Jorma Kaukonen on guitar (he also did a version of the song as part of Hot Tuna) and someone on a mechanical typewriter. The audio recording is accompanied by photos of Janis.

One of the comments on the Janis Joplin clip notes that "Hesitation" is a Jelly Roll Morton song, but in the clip above he denies having written it. Wikipedia attributes it to the songwriting team of Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton, and Art Gillham who are said to have made it up during a trip from St. Louis to Los Angeles in 1914. They used a "traditional tune" (a spiritual, according to W.C. Handy) and made up lyrics as the trip progressed. Since nearly every version of the song ever recorded has different lyrics, except for the chorus, it can be argued that the song has as many "authors" as it has performers. (Thanks to cox1356 for the Jelly Roll Morton video.)

This was the first version of the song I knew, apart from that done by Murray Kinnell, as the Fagin-like Putty Nose, just before he's gunned down by James Cagney, as a youthful Tom Powers, in The Public Enemy (1931). The Holy Modal Rounders were once described as "the originators, and sole exponents, of the genre known as acid-folk." I love the Rounders' lyrics ("'D' for Dreadnought..."). (Thanks to alexeiboronine for the video.)

There are many other excellent renditions of this song, including a western swing version (see a video here) by Willie Nelson with Asleep at the Wheel.

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