“Baby, Please Don’t Go” is a song with a long convoluted past that shows the evolution and adaptation many songs go through to become the tune we have become more familiar with.
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” is likely an adaptation of “Long John”, an old folk theme which dates back to the time of slavery in the United States. An early version was recorded by John and Alan Lomax, who recorded southern musicians (African-American, white, and Mexican-American) for the Library of Congress. They recorded “Long John,” a work song, sung by a man identified as “Lightning” [not Hopkins] and a group of his fellow black convicts at Darrington State Prison Farm in Texas in 1934.
While having little musical relationship to “Baby, Please Don’t Go” it was the same theme that inspired it. “Long John” mixed religious and secular concerns, including the notion of successful escape from bondage, a deeply felt desire of both slaves and prisoners.
Another song that may have been a thematic source was another song called “Long John (Green)”
Now we get to the more recognizable version of the song. Big Joe Williams used the imprisonment theme for his October 31, 1935, recording of “Baby, Please Don’t Go”. He recorded it during his first session for Lester Melrose and Bluebird Records in Chicago. It is an ensemble piece with Williams on vocal and guitar accompanied by Dad Tracy on one-string fiddle and Chasey “Kokomo” Collins on washboard, who are listed as “Joe Williams’ Washboard Blues Singers” on the single.
The song became a hit and established Williams’ recording career. On December 12, 1941, he recorded a second version titled “Please Don’t Go” in Chicago for Bluebird, with a more modern arrangement and lyrics. Blues historian Gerard Herzhaft calls it “the most exciting version”, which Williams recorded using his trademark nine-string guitar. Accompanying him are Sonny Boy Williamson I on harmonica and Alfred Elkins on imitation bass (possibly a washtub bass).
Big Joe Williams’ various recordings inspired other blues musicians to record their interpretations of the song and it became a blues standard. Early examples include Papa Charlie McCoy as “Tampa Kid” (1936), Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston (1939), Lightnin’ Hopkins (1947), John Lee Hooker (1949), and Big Bill Broonzy (1952). By the early 1950s, the song was reworked in contemporary musical styles, with an early rhythm and blues/jump blues version by Billy Wright (1951), a harmonized doo-wop version by the Orioles in 1952, and an Afro-Cuban-influenced rendition by Rose Mitchell (1954).
In 1953, Muddy Waters recast the song as a Chicago-blues ensemble piece with Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers. Chess Records originally issued the single with the title “Turn the Lamp Down Low”, although the song is also referred to as “Turn Your Lamp Down Low”, “Turn Your Light Down Low”, or “Baby Please Don’t Go”.
AllMusic critic Bill Janovitz cites the influence of Waters’ adaptation:
The most likely link between the Williams recordings and all the rock covers that came in the 1960s and 1970s would be the Muddy Waters 1953 Chess side, which retains the same swinging phrasing as the Williams takes, but the session musicians beef it up with a steady driving rhythm section, electrified instruments and Little Walter Jacobs wailing on blues harp.
Moving along to the more familiar version most later generations would remember, “Baby Please Don’t Go” was one of the earliest songs recorded by Them, fronted by a 19-year-old Van Morrison.
Their rendition of the song was derived from a version recorded by John Lee Hooker in 1949 as “Don’t Go Baby”. Hooker’s song later appeared on a 1959 album, Highway of Blues, which Van Morrison heard and felt was “something really unique and different” with “more soul” than he had previously heard.
Them recorded “Baby, Please Don’t Go” for Decca Records in October 1964. Besides Morrison, there is conflicting information about who participated in the session. In addition to the group’s original members (guitarist Billy Harrison, bassist Alan Henderson, drummer Ronnie Millings, and keyboard player Eric Wrixon), others have been suggested: Pat McAuley on keyboards, Bobby Graham on a second drum kit, Jimmy Page on second guitar, and Peter Bardens on keyboards. As Page biographer George Case notes, “There is a dispute over whether it is Page’s piercing blues line that defines the song, if he only played a run Harrison had already devised, or if Page only backed up Harrison himself”. Morrison has acknowledged Page’s participation in the early sessions: “He played rhythm guitar on one thing and doubled a bass riff on the other” and Morrison biographer Johnny Rogan notes that Page “doubled the distinctive riff already worked out by Billy Harrison”.
As the decades pass, you find rockers mellowing and regarding their early record dates with calm detachment. That’s how Morrison remembered the sessions with Page and Them that produced “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Looking back, he said he had no problem with Page there.
“I loved it,” he told Louder in 2015. “It didn’t bother me at all.” While that take didn’t match the memory of Graham (the session drummer), Morrison did offer some details on Page’s contribution to the track. Morrison told Louder:
Jimmy’s playing a detuned six-string guitar, so he’s actually doubling the bass part, then when it drops down low he’s playing this thing behind the vocal. It’s a tuned-down guitar but it sounds like a bass.
The opening guitar riff on “Baby, Please Don’t Go” is one of the defining moments of popular music in the ’60’s.
This was all Billy Harrison’s own work.
What annoyed me later was that you would start to see how it was being said that Jimmy Page had played a blinding solo on “Baby, Please Don’t Go”. I got narked about that: he never said he did it; but he never denied it.
“For a long time” said Jackie McAuley, who joined Them the next year, “Jimmy Page got credit for Billy Harrison’s guitar part. But he’s owned up to it.”
There have been many, many versions of this later version over the years by groups such as The Animals, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, Ten Years After, and others.
French blues historian Gérard Herzhaft described it as “one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history”. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included Big Joe Williams’ rendition in list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. In 1992, Williams’ song was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the “Classics of Blues Recordings” category. The Foundation noted that, in addition to various blues recordings, “the song was revived in revved-up fashion by rock bands in the ’60s such as Them, the Amboy Dukes, and Ten Years After”. AllMusic‘s Janovitz describes recordings in a variety of styles and notes “Sure, some guitarists like Angus Young and Ted Nugent have offered slick and fancy licks over breakneck tempos in their versions, but the song remains the same, to quote a phrase”.