Among traditional New Orleans jazz classics, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” has to rank near the top in popularity. “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Muskrat Ramble” are the only contenders that come to mind that may have been played more often.
But “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” may even surpass them, since it is traditionally played on the way back from the cemetery following a New Orleans funeral, in contrast to the slower, sadder spirituals that are played on the way to a burial. It’s a joyous tune that suggests the deceased should have no regrets because he “rambled all around, in and out of town.”
But as currently played, the song is heard in truncated form. As copyrighted in 1902 by “Will Handy,” the song has seven verses in addition to its familiar chorus. The verses tell the exploits of Buster Beebe, a ne’er do well compared to his two brothers. Buster’s escapades get him a 90-day jail sentence, an eviction from a hotel for refusal to pay his bill, and the loss of his car, his jewelry, and his money in a gambling house.
Then comes the familiar chorus, which is typically the only part of the song that is sung:
Oh! didn’t he ramble, ramble?
He rambled all around, in and out of town,
Oh, didn’t he ramble, ramble,
He rambled till the butchers cut him down.
Even the strictest law-and-order types among us would surely agree that to butcher a man for mere mischief is a case where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. What is the source of this incongruity?
“Didn’t He Ramble” is a case of musical pentimento, a term from the visual arts that means a visible trace of an earlier painting beneath a layer of paint on a canvas. The song has two layers, and the one that peeps through from beneath the tale of Buster Beebe involves not a human, but a goat.
The original subject of the chorus was The Ram of Derby, an animal in a song from Derbyshire County in the East Midlands region of England. This ram is—like Babe, Paul Bunyan’s blue ox—a fantastic creature; his wool reaches up to the sky, his teeth are like a regiment of men, and the space between his horns is as wide as a man can reach. There were many versions of the song, some of them ribald, but at some point a folk poet unknown to us today added the chorus now familiar to jazz fans.
The words resonated with humans, who thought to apply them to the rowdiest of their acquaintances. The literal sheep became the metaphorical black sheep, and new words were required to paint over the crack in the lyrics’ narrative.
Into the breach stepped James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem, who was then writing lyrics for musicals in New York; his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, with whom he had collaborated on other formalizations of folk music, as with their collection American Negro Spirituals; and Robert Allen “Bob” Cole.
Contrary to the inference that some have drawn from the name “Will Handy” on the song’s sheet music, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble?” was not written by W.C. Handy. “Will Handy” was a pseudonym used by Cole for songwriting following a dispute with the managers of a vaudeville troupe over his pay.
As James Weldon Johnson described it, the early ragtime songs were frequently based on older folk music that had been “sung for years all through the South.” The first man to write them down and copyright them stood to make a fortune off this common musical heritage. In the early years of ragtime this was usually a case of a white man profiting off black music, but in the case of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble?” the answer is not so simple.
While the song may have made its way into black folk music, as previously noted it had roots in England and it was the Johnson brothers and Cole, all black, who (in James Weldon Johnson’s words) “took it, re-wrote the verses, telling an entirely different story from the original, left the chorus as it was, and published the song.” The revised song “became very popular with college boys, especially at football games,” according to James Weldon Johnson.
Bob Cole is less well-known today than the Johnson brothers but his collaboration with them marked a turning point in American black entertainment. Both of the Johnson brothers had college degrees and James Weldon Johnson was, in addition to his musical endeavors, a writer, a diplomat, a poet, civil rights activist, lawyer, and newspaper editor. Cole was not a high school graduate, but he had lofty aspirations and his partnership with the Johnson brothers was a productive one, resulting in over 200 songs. He was a blackface minstrel, but he turned against that genre, arguing in his article “The Negro and the Stage” for an end to the stereotypical images of blacks that it perpetrated.
The conflation of man and goat persisted, however. In his 1931 book The Old Time Saloon, humorist George Ade brought the story of the goat forward to the beginning of the 20th century, and separated it from the tale of Buster Beebe. “Legend has it,” he wrote, “of a vagabond goat… that ranged through the alleys and by-ways of the red-light district. He was tolerated and humored and indulged… The police hod-nobbed with him and permitted him to butt small boys off the sidewalk. He was living in a goat’s paradise.
“One day a flock of sheep came along . . . and the goat fell in with his cousins, saying to himself: ‘I’ll stick along. This looks like a big party somewhere.’
“So he rambled along with the gang… bleating cheerfully, and presently he found himself in a long chute, with the crowd pushing from behind. Being a natural-born goat he made no attempt to escape. Impelled by that spirit of curiosity, which is the only redeeming trait of all goats, human and otherwise, he passed into a slaughter-house. Next day, goat was being served for mutton.”
Con Chapman is the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award by Hot Club de France, and the forthcoming Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good from Equinox Publishing.