1902© Music by Bob Cole Lyrics by Will Handy
Wil Handy pseudonym (James Weldon Johnson / John Rosamond Johnson /
James Weldon Johnson * Jacksonville, Fla Jun 17, 1871
† Wiscasset, Me Jun 26, 1938
John Rosamond Johnson * Jacksonville, Fla Aug 11, 1873
† New York City, NY Nov 11, 1954
Robert “Bob” Cole * Athens, Ga Jul 1, 1868
† Catskill, NY Aug 2, 1911
James Weldon Johnson wrote words to music for the music show stage in New York. He was collaborating with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and the late Bob Cole. He remembers that they 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.
The song was “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble!”i1
David Grillier of the Excelsior Brassband told about “Didn’t He Ramble”:
This song “Didn’t He Ramble” is a tune that we’d use a lot in Brass Bands for a wake or a funeral, because the words were perfect, singing about the deceased — they had a nice time, but now that the time has come to an end. We’d play it after the body was left at the cemetery in the processional on the way back… that would be appropriate for his friends … or even people who weren’t his friends would get to talking about the things he did. That was like a conversation piece – “Didn’t he ramble.”
For a Brass Band, we would play it slow, so people could march. Otherwise, you’d be burnt out by the time you got to the end of the block.i2
Brass Bands often played this tune when they came back from the funeral. Small symbolic acts attached themselves tot the pattern. Notorious rounders were treated with Oh, didn’t he ramble.
We sing the chorus and the common verse:
His head was in the market,
His feet were in the street, (or square)
All the folks that passin’ by said:
“Look at that market meat”.