The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
"Didn't He Ramble?"

"Didn't He Ramble?"

#232 / July 14 Podcast

Looking for songs to play in our nightly pre-show set as Alchemy Theater’s wonderful Bright Star musical enters its final weekend tonight, we hit on one of the oldest tunes in The Flood’s repertoire, a rollicking number that relates the deeds and misadventures of a rambling ne’er-do-well named Buster.

It was nearly 50 years ago when we first heard “Didn’t He Ramble?” Dave Peyton and Charlie Bowen learned it from the great local string band, The Kentucky Foothill Ramblers, whose leader, banjoist H. David Holbrook, seemed to know the entire Charlie Poole songbook. Bowen and Peyton started doing their own version of the song, teaching it to Roger Samples and Joe Dobbs and giving “Didn’t He Ramble?” a decidedly jug band spin.

After that, whenever the band played the song — which was just about every time they got together — they called it their Charlie Poole song, just assuming the song originated with that North Carolina superstar.

The Real Story … Sorta

It was only decades later, as The Flood began fraternizing with those remarkable traditional jazz fans of the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fan Reunion Bash, that we learned the truth.

When Poole recorded it in 1929, the song already was more than 25 years old. In fact, it turns out that “Didn’t He Ramble?” has been around the block so many times, it doesn’t know where it came from. Louis Armstrong used to do it. So did Jelly Roll Morton. Rowdy college boys sang it in the 1920s and ‘30s, making up their own verses. It was a New Orleans jazz standard, but even before that ragtime players had their own version of it.

Go back far enough, you’ll learn that the song was copyrighted in 1902 by brothers J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson and by Bob Cole, but they probably didn’t write the song’s most memorable lines.

We know that in 1888 a Texas work song was published with that distinctive chorus (Didn't he ramble? Didn't he ramble? / Oh, he rambled till the butcher cut him down!).

In their copyrighted version, Cole and the Johnsons adapted the chorus and then added a narrative, telling the story of Buster Beebe, whose adventures led him to a jail sentence and the loss of his money through gambling.

It didn’t take long for “Didn’t He Ramble?” to became a New Orleans classic. It maybe even surpassed “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Muskrat Ramble” in popularity, notes The Syncopated Times, “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.”

The joyous tune, the newsletter notes, “suggests the deceased should have no regrets because he ‘rambled all around, in and out of town.’”

A Goat Connection

Some researchers have traced the song — or at least that distinctive chorus — back even further, to an English folk song called “The Derby Ram” about a mythic goat (whose wool reaches up to the sky, his teeth are like a regiment of men, and whose space between the horns is as wide as a man can reach). And you guessed it: The Derby ram rambled until a fatal meet-up with a butcher.

The Syncopated Times quotes James Weldon Johnson as pointing out that early ragtime songs frequently were based on folk tunes that had been “sung for years all through the South.”

Nowadays Bob Cole is less well-known than the Johnson brothers, but his partnership with them was a productive one, resulting in more than 200 songs in the early years of the 20th Century.

Our Take on the Tune

Bright Star the musical in which we’ve been honored to be performing as the house band this summer — wraps up this weekend, and we’ll be doing the last of our nightly pre-shows starting this evening. For our little pre-show sets, we’ve sought out old songs like this one that complement the play’s bright new original music.

The last three performances of Bright Star are tonight, Saturday and Sunday nights at Alchemy Theater, 68 Holley Avenue in Huntington’s beautiful hills. For details, visit the theater’s website at

Sampling the Pre-Show

Out-of-town friends — sorry they couldn’t make any of those sold-out performances in Huntington — asked what the band’s nightly pre-shows were like. Well, because of video that Pamela and Danny’s wife, Tami, shot on the last night of the show, we can give you a 10-minute taste of how we started many of our July 2023 nights.

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: