‘And if the river were whisky
And ah was a duck,
Ah’d go down to the BOTTERN
An ah’d never come up. No sir,
Ah’d never come up.’
The above refrain is sung by one of the crew of Oedipus Tyrannus in Chapter 6 of Ultramarine (Pg. 176). The refrain is from a song variously known as ‘Hesitation Blues’, ‘Hesitating Blues’, ‘If The River Was Whiskey’ or ‘Divin’ Duck Blues’.
The exact origins of this song are lost in the mists of time. The traditional tune was arranged by W. C. Handy and published in 1915 as ‘Hesitating Blues’. The lyrics were entirely different from those of ‘Hesitation Blues’, and seldom used. In his Blues Anthology Handy stated that the tune was from an old spiritual.
‘Hesitation Blues’ was written/adapted by Billy Smythe and Scott Middleton. One of the first popular recordings of this song was an instrumental version by the Victor Military Band, with authorship attributed solely to Billy Smythe. It was recorded in 1915 at the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey. Later, a dispute over the credits was resolved by adding Art Gillham to the credits. Gillham, who was probably responsible for the lyrics, Gillham performed the song on radio and on 25 February 1925 recorded it for Columbia Records. The song was re-published in 1926 giving credit to the three writers. The 1926 publication was a different arrangement from the 1915 publication and featured different lyrics. Because the tune is traditional, many artists have recorded ‘Hesitation Blues’ crediting themselves as writer, though the lyrics of the 1926 publication are frequently used.
|Charlie Poole and His North Carolina Ramblers|
In Ultramarine, the refrain from ‘Hesitating Blues’ comes while the crew are talking about black sailors. These discussions may not be based on notes made by Lowry on the voyage to the East but may have more to do with his first voyage to America via the Caribbean in 1928 to visit Conrad Aiken. One of the crew talks about hearing black bands in the Milk Market area of Bridgetown, Barbados, which Lowry visited on the voyage to America. This was probably Lowry’s first exposure to African American and Caribbean American music. Up to this point, all the documented jazz and blues that he had heard would have been white American interpretations of the idioms.