“Muskrat Ramble” was written by trombonist Kid Ory in 1926 and first recorded that same year, on February 26, by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. However, like so many other early recordings, the origins of “Muskrat Ramble” are quite mysterious.
Ory maintained that he conceived of “Muskrat Ramble” in Los Angeles, revising it out of an old exercise in a saxophone study book, in 1921. He also said that it was Hot Five pianist Lil Hardin who finally named the song at the end of the aforementioned recording session. However, Armstrong also claimed authorship in an oft quotes 1965 Down Beat interview: “I wrote [it]. Ory named it, he gets the royalties. I don’t talk about it.”
Trumpeter Sidney Bechet stated that “Muskrat Ramble” was actually based on a tune he had heard as a kid in New Orleans named “The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried.” However, there are far too many songs (and nursery rhymes) titled “The Old Cow Died” to prove his theory.
Despite the controversies, John McCusker, who wrote Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz, writes that “Muskrat Ramble” will forever be linked to Kid Ory: “he would perform it several times a night, and he earned royalties until the day he died from the many recordings of the song by other artists.” Furthermore, Gene Anderson writes that Ory’s composition of the song years before it was recorded could account for its sounding more arranged than other Hot Five recordings and that, in any case, “Muskrat Ramble” is “a showpiece for the trombonist for whose ‘tailgate’ style of playing it is the ideal vehicle.”
“Muskrat Ramble” made the transition to the swing era and was performed in new big band and combo arrangements by such artists as Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman and Roy Eldridge. Ray Gilbert wrote lyrics for it in 1950. Modernists rarely tried to update it, opting instead to cover it in a playful of tongue-in-cheek manner. Ted Gioia suggests that “in truth, this song so perfectly captures the good-times ambiance the general public associates with New Orleans jazz that it’s probably best for musicians to just go along for the ride.”