By Adam Perlmutter
Few tunes enjoy as prominent a status in the blues canon as “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” popularized by Big Joe Williams, who first recorded it in 1935. The tune has since been interpreted by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, and Muddy Waters, among other blues heavyweights. A durable number, it’s also seen re-interpretations by rock groups including Them (with a 19-year-old Van Morrison on vocals), the Amboy Dukes, AC/DC, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” is thought to have originated with “Long John”—a work song with lyrics centered on the yearning for an escape from bondage. As rendered by Big Joe Williams, the song expresses a prisoner’s great anxiety about his lover taking off while he’s incarcerated.
Big Bill Broonzy’s 1952 recording is the source of this arrangement. Like most numbers, it’s got a simple structure, built from the I, IV, and V chords (E, A7, and B7, respectively). An eight-bar intro (the last eight measures of a 12-bar blues in the key of E major) is followed by nine verses, each based on the eight-bar blues form. Meanwhile, a 12-bar blues interlude is slipped between the second and third verses, as well as the fourth and fifth. Note that Broonzy sometimes adds a couple of beats to a measure, to accommodate his vocals—a practice common among solo blues musicians not encumbered by ensemble duties.
Play the song with a capo at the third fret; all of the music sounds a minor third higher than written (what’s notated as A7 sounds as C7, etc.). Broonzy played with a thumbpick, hammering away on the lower strings in steady quarter notes, indicated here in the down-stemmed notes. Though he probably intended to play just the root of each chord, he sometimes hit adjacent or inadvertent notes, as shown in the notation. Some of these notes, like the F# in bar 7, might not make a whole lot of sense from a textbook point of view, but lend character to the music. When you cop this bass part, be sure to use a bit of palm muting, for a driving, percussive effect.
Above the bass notes in the intro, Broonzy decorates the chords with little melodic bits whose notes are in close proximity to the chord grips. Pick this part with your index, middle, and ring fingers. If you have trouble playing the up- and down-stemmed notes at the same time, simply practice them independently, at a slow tempo, before combining them. Once you’ve learned these parts, use them as a basis for composing or improvising your own materials for the 12-bar interludes.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.