My bags are packed. I’m heading to America’s most resilient city for the annual conference of the Hymn Society. This year’s theme is “Jazz, Jambalaya, and Jubilee.” New Orleans, after all, is the birthplace of jazz. Its most famous nickname is the Big Easy.
My question this week is, perhaps, Too Easy. Everyone knows that NOLA’s unofficial anthem is WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN, a song with strong hints of redemption and salvation.
A more challenging question is, “Who wrote it?” — a trick question to which the answer is, “No one knows.”
Saints seems to have existed in the sultry air forever, filling the spaces between the cathedrals and the cathouses like another song of uncertain origins, House of the Rising Sun.
[Aside: Idea for jazz liturgists — fit the words of Amazing Grace to the melody of Rising Sun and it becomes an Americanized hymn of lament and redemption. Check out these YouTube clips of the Blind Boys of Alabama famously singing the hymn lyrics to the blues melody or the legendary Doreen Ketchens (Queen Clarinet) (a.k.a. “the female Louis Armstrong”) busking on the street in the French Quarter, merging these two songs into one.]
Some music historians shrug off the authorship question, saying only that Saints probably started as a spiritual sung by slaves longing for the day they’d see their loved ones in heaven, and it evolved into a post-Civil War gospel song.
FROM CATHOLIC CHANT TO JAZZ FUNERAL RIFF?
A different theory, offered by jazz scholar Thomas Cunniffe, is that the song may have been inspired by a chant in the Catholic requiem mass.
In the late 1800s, Archbishop Francis Janssens established several churches in New Orleans for black congregations, black clergy singing the Latin mass.
After a funeral, mourners would gather at the graveside where a choir chanted In Paradisum. The Latin translates as: “May the angels lead you into Paradise,” and, significantly, “May choirs of angels receive you and lead you to where Lazarus is poor no longer.”
Brass bands in the late 1800s established the tradition of the “jazz funeral,” accompanying mourners through the streets to and from the cemetery.
Cunniffe suggests that they may have riffed on the opening notes of In Paradisum, while leading the procession out of the cemetery, improvising into creation the hymn we know as “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
I think Cunniffe may have something here, but we’ll never know for sure. It’s a genuine mystery.
The first known recording of Saints was by the Paramount Jubilee Singers in 1923, a sad, wistful version. A published version appeared in 1927 in Spirituals Triumphant — Old and New, edited by Edward Boatner, born in New Orleans, the son of a preacher who had been a slave. A blues version of the song by Blind Willie Davis was recorded in 1928.
LIFE AFTER LOUIS
The hymn burst out of New Orleans after it was recorded for Decca by Louis Armstrong in 1938. He’d learned it as a “traditional gospel hymn” and played it on a tinny cornet at the Colored Waifs Home, where he was sent numerous times as punishment for delinquency.
Armstrong’s version for Decca was decidedly upbeat. In his introduction, he parodied terminology from churches he called “Holy Roller.”
“Sisters and Brothers, this is Reverend Satchmo, getting ready to beat out this mellow sermon for you. My text this evening is ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.’ Here come Brother Higginbotham down the aisle with his tram-bone. Blow it, boy.”
His sister, known locally as Mama Lucy, wasn’t happy about this. She accused Armstrong of “tarting up a piece from the church.” Pretty much everyone else loved it.
The Dixieland revival of the mid-1940s promoted the hymn to “jazz standard.” After that, it was covered by, well, everybody and their brother. The New Orleans Saints and dozens of other sports teams started using the song, or a variation, to pump up their fans after a goal.
Some jazz club musicians get weary of playing it. At historic Preservation Hall, they want fatigue pay, charging $5-10 for other songs, but $20 to play When the Saints Go Marching In.
TO GO DEEPER
“Those Marching Saints” by Thomas Cunniffe, Jazz History Online.
‘When the Saints Go Marching In” entry in KnowLA: The Encyclopedia of Louisiana History, Culture and Community.
“70 Years of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In” by Ricky Riccardi, blog: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, May 13, 2008 (Extensively researched essay documenting Armstrong’s relationship with the song)
“The Rhythm of the Saints” by John Swenson, Gambit: Best of New Orleans, 8/10/04
Doreen’s (Ketchens) Jazz New Orleans home page
When the Saints Go Marching In — New Orleans Street Music (Doreen Ketchens)
New Orleans Traditional Jazz Band Funeral Procession