Friday, 5 October 2012

If The River Was Whiskey

‘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
Versions of the lyrics vary widely, though the refrain is usually mostly consistent with the original. So which version did Lowry hear? The nearest version of the song I can find with the lyrics is ‘If The River Was Whiskey’ by Charlie Poole, which sounds like a speeded-up version of Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Hesitation Blues’, but Morton’s version lacks the phrase ‘If the river was whiskey’. Charlie Poole was an American old-time banjo player and country musician and the leader of the North Carolina Ramblers, an American old-time string band that recorded many popular songs between 1925 and 1930. The band recorded ‘If The River Was Whiskey’ in 1930 for Columbia, which means that either Lowry heard this while writing Ultramarine or he is referring to an as yet unidentified version. One can see the attraction of the lyrics for a budding alcoholic like Lowry! The song has parallels with the story of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, who is reputed to have been drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine in 1478. The tradition may have originated in a joke, based on his reputation as a heavy drinker. Lowry, of course, would adopt the Plantagenet name for his alter ego in the novella Lunar Caustic.

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.

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