By Bob Waltz

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July 1996)

Two months ago in this column I did a song (The Storms Are On the Ocean) that had a peculiar history. Last month Lyle Lofgren covered a song about an impossible animal (Wild Hog/Old Bangum/Sir Lionel). After that, what could I possibly do but a song about a wild animal with a strange history?

One of the best-known songs in Great Britain is The Derby Ram. (That's pronounced "Darby," by the way.) It is, in fact, one of the most widely-known songs in the world; it has been found throughout Britain, over large parts of the United States, and in Australia. The details of the story varied from place to place, but these verses will give you an idea of how the song went:

As I went down to Derby All on a market day,
I spied the biggest ram, sir,
That ever was fed on hay.

The wool upon this ram's back
Reached up to the sky.
The eagles built their nest there;
You could hear the young ones cry.

Now the butcher that killed this ram, sir,
Was up to his knees in blood;
The boy that held the bowl, sir,
Was washed away in the flood.

Obviously not the sort of animal you meet every day! One of the versions of this song had an interesting chorus:

And didn 't he ramble, ramble,
He rambled till the butcher cut him down.

In fuller versions, this became

And didn't he ramble, ramble,
He rambled all around, in and out of town,
And didn't he ramble, ramble,
He rambled till the butcher cut him down.

Somewhere along the line, somebody obviously thought, "Hey! Great chorus! But the rest of the song is dumb.... I think I'll turn it into a song about a wild and improbable man instead of a wild and improbable sheep."

As far as I know, there is no proof of who turned The Derby Ram into Didn't He Ramble. Perhaps the likeliest candidate is the famous blues musician Will Handy (1873-1958) [but see below], who sang a seven-stanza version that included such lyrics as these:

This black sheep was a terror, oh!
and such a ram was he,
That every "copper" knew by heart
his rambling pedigree.

Although we're not sure who crafted the song, we have no doubt at all about who moved it into the old-time repertoire. That was none other than the original North Carolina Rambler, Charlie Poole. Poole also "tried to bring it back down to earth," to quote the Old-Time String Band Songbook. Since his time the song has been a staple of old-time bands; I first heard it from Bob Bovee and Gail Heil, and I know of recordings by the New Lost City Ramblers and Debby McClatchy.

Performance note: Banjo players, watch out for that low B at the beginning of the chorus. You'll either have to fake it with a D (shown here) or do what Debby McClatchy does and pitch the song in D. Also, the timing notation written here has been simplified. Recorded versions are usually more rhythmically complex.

Ddin't He Ramble

Complete lyrics:
Mother raised three grown sons, Buster, Bill, and me;
Buster was the black sheep of our little family.
Mother tried to break him of his rough and rowdy ways;
Finally had to get the judge for to give him ninety days

And didn't he ramble, ramble,
He rambled all around, in and out of town,
And didn't he ramble, ramble,
He rambled till the butchers cut him down.

He rambled in a gambling game, he gambled on the green,
The gamblers there showed him a trick that he had never seen.
He lost his roll and jewelry, he like to lost his life,
He lost the car that carried him there and someone stole his wife.

He rambled in a swell hotel, his appetite was stout,
But when he refused to pay the bill the landlord kicked him out.
He reached a brick to smack him with and when he went to stop,
The landlord kicked him over the fence into a barrel of slop.

Addendum:. In response to this article, Joseph Scott posted the following two messages to the USENET newsgroup :

November 22, 2006:
Bob is mistaken -- (as is Meade, Spottswood, and Meade1) -- in identifying the "Will Handy" who put out Oh Didn't He Ramble as W.C. Handy. As James Weldon Johnson explained in 1921:

"The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, 'jes' grew.' Some of these earliest songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was The Bully, a levee song which had been long used by roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity. Another one of these 'jes' grew' songs was [...] A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight; introduced and made popular by the colored regimental bands during the Spanish-American War. Later there came along a number of colored men who were able to transcribe the old songs and write original ones. I was, about that time, writing words to music for the music show stage in New York. I was collaborating with my brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and the late Bob Cole. I remember that we appropriated about the last one of the old 'jes' grew' songs. It was a song which had been sung for years all through the South. The words were unprintable, but the tune was irresistible, and belonged to nobody. We took it, re-wrote the verses, telling an entirely different story from the original, left the chorus as it was, and published the song, at first under the name of 'Will Handy.' It became very popular with college boys, especially at football games, and perhaps still is. The song was, Oh, Didn't He Ramble!"

November 24, 2006:
Some of the other stuff Bob mentions in there is interesting too. E.g., I sometimes see people claim that The Bully Of The Town started (or pretty much started) in "white" professional tradition and then went to "black" folk tradition, during the 1890s, but I've seen several sources about J.W. Johnson's age (he was a little older than W.C. Handy), i.e. old enough to know, indicate it was basically the other way around. An interesting thing to try to work out is what chord progression The Bully would have had among "black" folk musicians as of the 1890s. If I had to bet I'd bet it was close to I-I-I-I-IV-IV-IV-IV-I-V-I-I2, which was the way Sidney Stripling ("black" Georgian born about 1880) did it, was almost the same way several of the "white" string bands did it, and was also found in White House Blues as Poole did it, and Railroad Bill as Stick and Brownie McGhee did it.

Any time there's those four IVs in the middle of a blues-ish progression (including the 12-bar songs that predate "blues"-songs-as-such), that suggests it was early, e.g. best I can tell Royal Garden Blues seems to have been genuinely more closely connected to early folk blues, because of that, than a lot of jazz-associated blues.

Footnotes to addendum:
1. Meade, Spottswood & Meade, Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
2. These Roman numerals refer to major chords, and are used as designations independent of the actual key. I = tonic chord; IV = sub-dominant chord; and V = dominant chord. Thus, in the key of G major, I=G; IV=C; and V=D chord.

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