When Waylon Jennings had a hit in 1974 with “Ramblin’ Man” off of his eponymous album, the song had already walked, in peripatetic stride, the far-out rambling exchange of 20th century American music. Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, one of the earliest recorded old-time country string bands (famous, in part, for the standard, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”), cut “Ramblin’ Blues” as early as 1928, but we can assume the tune is much older. Save for the Hackberry Ramblers, whose Cajun-laced western swing is a little outside of standard genre-fare, the ramblin’ songs that I’ve compiled stick within the confines of prewar and acoustic blues, old-time country, outlaw country, and the folk revival.
Where Robert Johnson’s ramble is a disconcerting polyphony of voice and shrieking guitar, “mean things on my mind,” most of these artists puff their chests out while they wander. Hank Williams’ classic “Ramblin’ Man” consolidates his aura of romantic untouchability; a caution that hearkens forth to Jennings’ ramblin’ machismo 23 years later, and Memphis Minnie’s “Nothin’ In Ramblin’,” recorded 11 years before Williams’ tune, throws it back, hanging up her own wandering hat, getting married, and settling down. Rambling, of an etymology that’s tantilizingly, poetically unknown, could be a digressive wandering of body or of mind—unsystematic contemplation, unrestrained ambling, “easy riding.” No wonder it was picked up so zealously by the “outlaws,” so enamored with the masculine tradition of aimless philosophizing.
Fittingly, “Ramblin’,” Barbara Dane’s throaty walk through “your town,” is actually a reworking of hobo pioneer Woody Guthrie’s 1944 “Ramblin’ ‘Round.” It’s a beautiful thought, to wander freely, and these songs pay tribute that’s sometimes careful, more often wild and big. Dane’s reworking of Guthrie’s alienation—“I’ve never met a friend I know, as I go rambling around”—makes me think this tradition has meat on its bones, isn’t just a walking boy skeleton of outlaw lust and male alienation. And truly, all of these songs hold up, especially, funnily, together.