Friday, January 27, 2012

Rubber Dolly Rag

 “Rubber Dolly Rag” is an American tune that has touched nearly every corner of the American music scene since the melody first appeared in 1900. Danish-born American violinist/composer Jens Bodewalt Lampe, after becoming the first-chair violinist for the Minneapolis Symphony at age 16, moved to Buffalo NY in the 1890s and began to lead dance band of his own. Almost immediately after becoming aware of Scott Joplin’s new “Maple Leaf Rag,” Lampe composed his own syncopated piece entitled “Creole Belles.” This brand new type of music, which later came to be called “ragtime,” was variously described as “cakewalk,” “march” and “two-step” music during its early history. “Creole Belles” was performed widely by pianists, ragtime bands, brass bands and military bands. John Phillip Sousa championed this piece and by 1902, the Danish American had become one of the most well known ragtime composers – perhaps second only to Joplin.

Early in the 1900s, the second strain of “Creole Belles” began to be picked up by fiddlers all across America and the catchy melody began to adopt alternative names including “Back Up and Push” and “Rubber Dolly.” The tune was so popular that most Appalachian string bands who were recording in the 1920s & 1930s released some version of it. Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Uncle Bud Landress made recordings of this tune in the early '30s. Perry Bechtel and His Boys, known for their recordings on the “Race” and “Hillbilly” series popularized in that era by the record companies, recorded this tune in Atlanta. Some of the most often quoted lyrics are from the Light Crust Dough Boys, a band that featured one of the greatest Texas swing fiddlers of the time – Cecil Brower.

This tune represents one of the most amazing of the many cultural cross-pollinations in our American musical history. After Western Swing bands and Texas Style fiddlers adopted and popularized the tune with its characteristic swing and ragtime rhythms, the great African American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded it using the white string-band lyrics. Fitzgerald’s “Wubba Dolly” was recorded in 1939. Famed African American blues guitarist and singer Mississippi John Hurt, who often collaborated with Anglo American fiddler Willie Narmour in the early 1920s, brought the original title of this tune to the forefront again by adapting the lyrics of “My Creole Belle” to the new tune and rhythm. Hurt was known for playing square dance and ragtime music during the same period that he was recording early blues music for Okey Records. His interest in different styles of American music resulted in this tune being introduced to a much wider audience. The lyrics of “My Creole Belle” are often sung to the tune of “Rubber Dolly Rag.”

My Creole Belle, I love her well
My darling baby, my Creole Belle
When the stars shine, I’ll call her mine
My darling baby, my Creole Belle.

 And the cross-pollination doesn’t end there! Whereas the original “Rubber Dolly” lyrics probably derive from Anglo American children’s games of the late 1800s, they made their way into a Top-10 record in 1965. In that year, African American soul singer Shirley Ellis recorded the Rubber Dolly lyrics used by the Light Crust Dough Boys and other Appalachian string bands as “The Clapping Song.” Folk music pioneer Woody Guthrie, as well as many others, recorded the Creole Belle version also adding to the popularity of the tune among the newer generations.

The appearance of alternate versions of lyrics in American songs, especially originating from different racial groups, is a long-standing American music tradition. However, in this case, having both versions of the lyrics covered by both black and white singers for over a century is particularly interesting. From its very beginning, fiddlers continued to play this tune from coast to coast and generation to generation, establishing it as one of the truly classic examples of the American Music System.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.


  1. Unbelievable that you would speak of "Rubber Dolly Rag" and not mention Bud Landress of The Georgia Yellow Hammers".

    Like the national reviewer who wrote of the film "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" without mentioning the music, this is like reviewing "Moby Dick" without mentioning the whale.

  2. Thank you for this excellent history of this tune. I needed some background for my online fiddle class (Red Desert Fiddle) and this was the best info out there. Ignore the person commenting above. Your article was great, and I'll share your link with my students. --Lora (Red Desert Fiddle)

  3. I love that I stumbled upon this. JB is my great great grandfather, and I have to point out that you have labeled the image of the orchestra as JB's, but it is in fact his son's (Dell Lampe, my great grandfather) orchestra who played at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago

  4. Thanks so much for this history of My Creole Belle (and Rubber Dolly). There are two melody parts to the tune: the part that Huddie Ledbetter and many other sing (which I'd say is the Chorus), and also a B Section which I call the Verse. There are 5 verses that I've located. Some of them have outdated racist overtones, so I did some modification to take out that insulting language. I don't know where I got the tune of the Verse Part. Does anyone know where to find that so I can credit when I sing this song? Here's the info and sources I've been able to locate. Any corrections, additional information or suggestions welcome.

    Words and music by Huddie Ledbetter, Sidney and Lampe; Revised and arranged by Ann Charters 1900. From the Ragtime Songbook, 1965,Oak Publications.

    Some of the verses: Verses 1 & 2 Lyrics by Rosamond Johnson from the Levy Collection online by J. W. Johnson, 1900. This is a different tune from the Lampe tune. Verses 3, 4, 5 by George Sidney, also attributed to Mississippi John Hurt – tune and chorus only. Revised and arranged to fit music by Ledbetter and Sidney/Lampe, by Marian Drake, 2003. Marian learned this song from Steve Beisner in Santa Barbara, California in about 1974. Thanks to the Multnomah County, Oregon, Public Library, and to Jane Keefer for leads to the lyrics and music in 2003.

    Other verse lyrics found in Wehman Bros. Song and Joke Book No. 3 [Viewable at the Internet Archive.]
    (New York: Wehman Bros., 1902?)

    Copyright, 1900, by the Lampe Music Co.
    Transferred 1901 to The Whitney Warner Pub. Co., Detroit, Mich.
    Words by George Sidney. Music by J. Bodewalt Lampe. These [very racist] George Sidney lyrics found at Marian Drake’s rendition of the Lampe lyrics have removed racist words.

    MY CREOLE BELLE: Some lyrics by Rosamunde Johnson

  5. Oh, here are some more punchy and descriptive lyrics for the chorus:

    My Creole Belle, I love her well
    She makes me happy, my Creole Belle
    When stars do shine, I’ll call her mine
    My darling baby, my Creole Belle.

    Not sure where I got this version.