Like everyone else, I got this from Mississippi John Hurt, and for all any of us knew it was his composition. He sang it in that lovely, gentle voice, evoking a sort of charming “old South” nostalgia, and I thought of this as kind of a companion piece to “Goodnight, Irene.” It was also one of his most basic guitar arrangements, in the key of C, and particularly easy for those of us who already had “Freight Train.” So I learned it early and kept playing it, despite the fact that the lyrics didn’t go very far.
It was probably another twenty years before I heard the original, a ragtime composition published in 1900 by the Danish-born violinist Jens Bodewalt Lampe, and recorded in 1902 by a presumably ad hoc outfit billed as the Edison Concert Band. Lampe’s version had several sections, the second of which is what Hurt played, and Lasse Johansson, who has recorded a lovely guitar arrangement of the full rag, informs me that the original lyric was close to what Hurt sings:
My Creole belle, I love her well,
Around my heart she has cast a spell.
When stars do shine I call her mine,
My dusky baby, My Creole belle.
I always assumed the Creole belle of the title was African American, given Hurt, and ragtime, and this lyric confirms that assumption. But judging by the damsels adorning the cover of the sheet music for the instrumental version of the rag, at least some people thought of the titular belle as Creole in the original American sense of the term, which did not indicate race. In both French and Spanish, the word was used primarily for European-Americans born in the colonies, and only secondarily and by extension for African-Americans born on this side of the Atlantic.
That usage was continued in Louisiana, where Creole meant anyone of French heritage. After the Haitian revolution, thousands of French Creoles immigrated to Louisiana, many of them bringing their slaves and/or servants, who became a sort of in-between class in New Orleans, not white but also not black, and were racially designated as “Creoles of color” to distinguish them from white creoles. In recent decades, the term’s meaning has shifted yet again, being adopted by the African American Francophone population of rural south Louisiana, who were previously just known as black French. In linguistic terms, this shift is confusing, because the black French did not in general come from Haiti, but are descended from people bought as slaves by Francophone planters, and speak their own dialect, which is closer to Cajun French than to the Creole French of black New Orleans.
For a taste of the difference, compare the language of any Francophone zydeco song with a song like “Mo Pas Lemme Ca” (a unique orthography, but that’s what they wrote) on the wonderful Jazz a la Creole session featuring Danny Barker and Albert Nicholas, and sung in Creole French. A simple clue is the use of moi or mwa (or, in the LP orthography, mo) for the active first person singular, which is standard in Haitian Kreyol or New Orleans Creole, whereas a French, Cajun, or Black French speaker of non-Haitian heritage would use je.