“Saints.”  Say that word to a New Orleans jazzman and he will know what you mean.  If you are in the French Quarter on the street or in a club, he also may respond by extending the hand not holding his horn as he looks you in the eye and says, “Fifty.”  You may then reach into your pocket in search of a green/gray piece of paper with Ulysses S. Grant’s picture engraved on it.  If you can’t find a Grant, a Jackson may do – possibly a Hamilton but never less than two Lincolns (paper, not copper).  What you will learn with no uncertainty from this exchange is that to get your toe tapping to the familiar notes that follow the words, “Oh, When the…,” it’s a matter of dollars and Saints.

I heard it from “his master’s voice”

My mom’s huge hi-fi

These thoughts come to mind around Mardi Gras or anytime during the year when my Bayou Band and I play When the Saints Go Marching In.  My earliest memory of it comes from my mother’s record collection.  She loved the music of New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt and Crescent City clarinetist Pete Fountain and played their records on our big, furniture-sized RCA Victor Hi-Fi every night after I went to bed.  Along with Basin Street Blues and South Rampart Street Parade, “Saints,” always marched in as sure as the turntable went around and around.

As I grew older and became more familiar with New Orleans music and especially Louis Armstrong’s version of the song, it dawned on me that of all the songs ever linked to places, “Saints” is one of the strongest.  And unlike New York, New York, Kansas City, Tennessee Waltz and other songs about places, the city itself is not mentioned in the lyrics.  That’s because the song organically became part of New Orleans culture originally through churches, then parades, funerals, parties, nightclubs and any number of special occasions where an upbeat song came in handy.

According to author Thomas Brothers in Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, Satchmo himself said about jazz, “It all came from the Old Sanctified Churches.”  Brothers also writes that the rhythm and movement to music by the Sanctified Church members, who called themselves “saints,” showed unity among those whose denomination was perceived to be inhabited by the lowest social class in New Orleans.  He then asserts that around 1900, church music, most likely including When the Saints Go Marching In, began to creep into New Orleans dance halls through musicians such as the legendary Buddy Bolden.

And when the sun…

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band playing “Saints”

There are probably as many theories as to where the content for the lyrics of “Saints” originated as there are versions and verses of the song.  One popped into my head a few years ago at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville where I am a member.  The scripture came from the book of Acts.  It occurred to me as I read along that I was reading some of the very references found in the version of the song I sing.  I adapted it from David Cohn’s 1930s classic book God Shakes Creation.  Cohn went to a church attended by sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta and transcribed When the Saints Go Marching In as he heard it that day.  Based on those lyrics, this is how I heard our scripture reading in the 21st Century:

Acts 2, verse 20 (King James Version) states: The sun shall be turned into darkness. I heard, “And when the sun refuse to shine; and when the sun refuse to shine.”

Verse 20 continues:  and the moon [turned] into blood.  I heard, “And when the moon goes down in blood; and when the moon goes down in blood.”

Verse 21 sums it up with: Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.  I heard, “I want to be in that number,” and don’t we all, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

So the next time you’re in New Orleans and ask a horn player for “Saints,” don’t be offended if you’re asked for money in return for the tune.  Just think of it as putting a little something in the collection plate.

I couldn’t resist including a little “Saints” at the end of my song Below the Level of the Sea. Click here to listen.

Recommended reading: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans by Thomas Brothers                                                                                                                                                   Where I Was Born and Raised by David L. Cohn (includes God Shakes Creation)

Photos & text copyright 2012 Les Kerr                                                                                     Below the Level of the Sea from the CD New Orleans Set.  Words & music copyright 1988

Visit Les Kerr’s web site at  www.leskerr.com

This blog was originally posted in February, 2012.

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Understand the Blues (contains free song download)

335-copyIt isn’t always necessary to know someone very well to figure out if something’s disturbing them. Sometimes, you don’t have to know them at all. Language isn’t important, either. It’s not necessary to understand them or to even hear them speak. You can see they have the blues.

Once, while standing in line at the post office, I noticed the sound of several dialects being spoken by others in line and at the counter. I heard what I believed to be Spanish, Middle Eastern, perhaps Romanian or Czechoslovakian and my own good old Southern-style English. Each person speaking was talking with someone who sounded like they did, either in a native tongue or in English with a thick accent. I wondered how much we could understand each other if we were all in one conversation.

Then, it dawned on me. If one of us needed help or had to communicate that something was wrong, we would all immediately understand. Perhaps we couldn’t get the specifics, but we’d know they were unhappy. We could tell the blues was in ‘em.

The idea for this song came from that moment of realization in 2000 in the Bellevue, Tennessee post office that no matter what language is native to any of us, we all Understand the Blues.

Click here to listen and download Understand the Blues free. (free download through Feb. 8, 2017).

Understand the Blues
Words and Music by Les Kerr
©2000 Publisher: O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)

We’re going multi-cultural in this wide world of ours
It’s putting quite a strain on all of my linguistic powers
If you’re not bilingual, you can’t get your business done
But I found me a way I can relate to everyone
Spaniards hablan Espanol and Frenchmen parlez vous
But you can speak my language if you Understand the Blues

The Blues is spoken ‘round the world by women and by men
By anyone who’s lost a dollar, peso, pound or yen
You’re lover leaves you cryin’; your l’amour bids you adieu
Then you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, you Understand the Blues

Music is the universal language, so they say
But the most common dialect is in the Blues today
This accent’s heard in every voice, no matter what they speak
It’s part of every tongue from Mandalay to Mozambique
From Australia’s land Down Under to the mountains of Peru
Ain’t a living, breathing soul who doesn’t Understand the Blues

We know about the differences between each foreign land
We say, “They speak a language no one here can understand.”
The nations search for common ground but I know this is true:
In one way they’re united ‘cause they Understand the Blues

Ain’t a living, breathing soul who doesn’t Understand the Blues

Text and photos copyright 2017 by Les Kerr

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Tennessee at The Kennedys


Tennessee was well represented at the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. Almost all of the musicians who performed to honor the recipients had a connection with the state and its music. Beginning with Ringo Starr, who recorded his Beaucoups of Blues album with The Jordanaires, Pete Drake and others in Nashville, many who appeared had a current or past musical relationship with Tennessee. If not a deep involvement, they had, at least, a passing acquaintance with one of the country’s most melodious states.

Memphis Bonnie Raitt, who paid tribute to Mavis Staples, has performed many times in Nashville, including a 2016 two-day stint at Ryman Auditorium. While she and others honored the gospel-pop queen, images of 45 RPM Staples Singers records produced at MemphisStax Records twirled about. A film clip of Mavis’ performance at the 1972 Wattstax festival underlined the significance of the legendary Memphis studio.


It is easy to hear the influence of Nashville’s country and Memphis’ blues in James Taylor’s music. From Sweet Baby James to Steamroller Blues, Taylor has acknowledged his musical influences throughout his career. To celebrate his status as a Kennedy Center honoree, current Nashvillians Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker took the stage individually and collectively to perform. While a man who wears a big black cowboy hat may not invoke images of a soft-spoken, articulate folk singer, Brooks has often spoken of Taylor’s influence on his music and his life. He even named his daughter Taylor after James.

In the 1970s, the last thing many may have expected to hear on a pop record was a five-string banjo. But there is one on The Eagles’ 1972 record of Jackson Browne’s Take It Easy. Some call the music they created “country rock” and some call it “folk rock,” but however you describe it, the influence of hillbilly roots cannot be denied. So it was only appropriate that Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill delivered one of their classics, Peaceful Easy Feeling, and Nashville-based rockers Kings of Leon performed Take It Easy during the honors program.

Classical pianist and Kennedy Center honoree Martha Argerich was treated to a performance by Itzhak Perlman. Perlman performed at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center to officially reopen the concert hall after it was devastated by 2010 flooding.

The music of Tennessee, itself, was honored by the presence of so many it has influenced at the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

Text and photos copyright 2017 by Les Kerr.

Click to order Les Kerr's 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Click to order Les Kerr’s 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

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Still on the farm

Songwriting tools.

My songwriting tools.

“I took a bull to the sale barn today and ‘bull’ is what they offered me. But sometimes you just have to take what they’ll pay and pray it gets better, you see.”

That’s almost a direct quote from a conversation I had years ago with my cousin Jim Starks in Louisville, Mississippi. It’s also a line from a song I wrote called Still on the Farm, inspired by the conversation Jim and I were having when he said those words. He was married to my mother’s first cousin, Jane. With their sons Jim and Michael, Jim and Jane lived on land that included a pecan orchard and some cattle.

Jim was talking from the perspective of an agricultural businessman. What he said speaks to anyone in any kind of business they pursue, come hell or high water, because they love it. A performing songwriter like me, a pharmacy owner, a freelance writer or computer consultant can relate. Any sole proprietor determined to make a go of it understands exactly what Jim said.

For several years in the 1990s, about the time Jim and I had that conversation, I wrote articles for Tennessee Cattle Business magazine. I literally interviewed farmers “out standing in their fields,” pastures, barns or farm houses to learn about learn about them, why they liked a certain breed and what they wanted to share with other cattlemen about methods that worked for them. One breathtakingly hot summer day in West Tennessee I drove up a dirt road and stopped between a farmer’s barn and his house. My interview subject, wearing jeans and a sweat-soaked plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, met me at my car and led me over to his cattle so I could photograph them for my story.

“How’s the cattle business?” I cheerfully asked.                                                                     “We’re workin’ too hard to still be so hungry,” he laughed. “But we still work, no matter what.”

They say songwriters and reporters are never off-duty. When you have the habits of both, sometimes you find yourself working two jobs at the same time. This man’s dedication and reply stuck with me, as Jim Starks’ words did, and I realized a song was coming along. “Hungry” was awkward for me to rhyme so I took the cattleman’s reply to my question and put my own brand on it. It came out: “We’re working too hard to be this close to broke but I’m thankful we’re still on the farm.”

Jim and Jane are no longer alive but I think about them often. I think about that farmer, too, and hope he doesn’t still feel unduly hungry for the amount of work, sweat and belief he and his family must have put into their farm in the twenty years that have passed since I talked to him in the broiling Tennessee heat. One thing he and Jim both understood was that they were responsible for their own success and it was up to them to find a way to make it work.

If you toil in a field you love, as I do, I hope you are still on the farm.

Click here to listen to Still on the Farm from Les Kerr’s Bay Street album.

Still on the Farm



If kudzu could somehow become a cash crop
If cotton brought ten bucks a pound
And, Lord, if this dry spell ever would stop
We might turn this old farm around

I took a bull to the sale barn today
And “bull” is what they offered me
But sometimes, you just have to take what they’ll pay
And pray it gets better, you see

I’ve got a good wife and a good family
And the Good Lord to keep us from harm
We’re working too hard to be this close to broke
But I’m thankful we’re still on the farm
One more year, we’re still on the farm

I saw a friend at the co-op today
Who told me he’s selling his place
He said those old taxes were too hard to pay
And a teardrop rolled right down his face

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m hanging on
As shaky as this life can be
But what would I do if this old farm was gone?
No, that’s not an option for me

The fair-market price for a labor of love
Is not paid in money, it seems
You reap your reward when the going gets rough
And you don’t give up on your dreams

I’ve got a good wife and a good family
And the Good Lord to keep us from harm
We’re working too hard to be this close to broke
But I’m thankful we’re still on the farm
One more year, we’re still on the farm
One more year, we still own this farm

Words and music copyright 2002 by Les Kerr Publisher: O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)

Click to order Les Kerr's 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Click to order Les Kerr’s 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr.


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Christmas in Nashville

Metro Nashville's 34-foot tall 2016 Christmas tree.

Metro Nashville’s 34-foot tall 2016 Christmas tree.

It is appropriate that in a city known so much for its music that there was a lot of it at the official lighting of Metro Nashville’s Christmas tree. Choirs from Nashville School of the Arts, W.O. Smith School and West End United Methodist Church performed.

Three choirs celebrated the dedication of Nashville's 2016 Christmas tree.

Three choirs celebrated the dedication of Nashville’s 2016 Christmas tree.








Margo Price

Rising country star Margo Price, who records on Jack White’s Third Man Records, presented a short acoustic set before being joined by choir voices to cap off the event.

Mayor Megan Barry

Mayor Megan Barry

Mayor Megan Barry described how the thirty-four foot tall tree was donated by a family in Nashville’s Bellevue community. Vice Mayor David Briley, County Clerk Brenda Wynn and others spoke to a large crowd as Music City officially said, “Merry Christmas to all, 2016.”

Tennessee Titans mascot T-Rac

Tennessee Titans mascot T-Rac

Mascots from Nashville’s professional sports teams, including the NFL Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Sounds baseball team, also showed up to help celebrate the lighting of the tree.




Even the Metro Nashville Courthouse is lit in red and green during the season to celebrate.

Metro Nashville Courthouse

Metro Nashville Courthouse

For me and those who attended, it was a joyous evening. Living in Nashville is one of the many things for which I am grateful and I hope you are experiencing joy and gratitude wherever you may be.

Merry Christmas!



Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr

Click to order Les Kerr's 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Click to order Les Kerr’s 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

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It’s time to take Paul’s advice

My King James BibleAbout five years ago, I developed an interest in truly trying to move forward personally and professionally in a positive way. After reading books by Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Michael Hyatt, Andy Andrews, Seth Godin, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and Dan Miller and following their videos, blogs and podcasts, I have taken some of their advice to heart. As with all advice, especially when delivered through books and other media and not in person, some of it will apply to the consumer and some will not.

Probably the most important habit I have acquired is starting my day with a few quiet moments for me. Miller quotes Henry Ward Beecher in referring to the first hour after awakening as “the rudder of the day.” Hyatt echoes the importance of that time and has offered suggestions of how to spend it. In my case, I refer to it as my “morning read.” I start with a daily devotion written by Presbyterian minister P.J. Southam in The Presbyterian Heritage Daily Devotional. I follow that with a Bible reading and a prayer. And, usually, some pages or a chapter of a book. Right now, the book is the well-researched Meeting Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor.

This morning, the scripture reading jumped out at me. In the King James Bible myMemaw's dedication Grandmother “Memaw” Kerr gave me in 1968, the authorship of Ephesians is attributed to the Apostle Paul. Now that the 2016 election is over, some words Paul wrote in his epistle are particularly timely.

I don’t consider myself an overly-religious person, but I realize that God often tells you what you need to know just when you need know it. Paul was writing to the people of Ephesus on the Aegean Sea centuries ago but I believe he might have had an idea of what the United States has just experienced. He offers advice I believe the people of the United States of America need to pay attention to now.

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil-speaking be put away from you, with all malice:  And be ye kind one to another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

Ephesians 4, verses 31-32, King James Version, Holy Bible.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr


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Playing Guy Clark’s guitars

With Guy Clark holding a guitar he built.

With Guy Clark holding a guitar he built.

I was saddened to learn of the death of Guy Clark in The Tennessean. It was a treat to spend some time with this songwriter’s songwriter and a personal hero in 2013. Here’s the blog about that experience I hope you will enjoy. God bless Guy Clark for maintaining his integrity by writing songs of substance.

September, 2013:

Last Tuesday, I was in Guy Clark’s house to interview him for an upcoming column in 2nd & Church, Nashville’s quarterly literary magazine. Guy is one of the songwriters I admire most and I have followed his work since the mid-1980s. Sitting at a table with him in his home talking about songwriting was something I could never have imagined those years ago when I discovered his music for myself.

The theme for the magazine is Ernest Hemingway. Guy co-wrote the song Hemingway’s Whiskey. When the issue is published, you can read Guy’s comments about the man considered by some to be America’s greatest 20th Century author. But this is about my experience of being with a songwriting hero.

Guy Clark not only plays guitars, he has built them. I asked if there were similarities between writing songs and building guitars. “Sometimes I draw that comparison,” he said. “You have to take care with what you’re doing. I like to think of writing songs as art and poetry and at times, I feel that building guitars is the same thing. Except writing is so cerebral. You’re just sitting there staring out a window trying to come up with something from a pocket full of bar napkins from the night before. I’ve got one bar napkin that says, ‘my life was a blank bar napkin ‘til I met you.’”

As we continued to talk he reached toward a Flamenco-style guitar near him, handed it to me and said, “Check this one out. That may be my favorite.” I had told him that I had played some of his songs about the Texas Gulf Coast along the upper Gulf when I played clubs there frequently in the 1980s and 1990s. He asked which ones so I played him a little of “Blowin’ Like a Bandit,” his song about shrimping. I played one verse and realized that there I was, playing a Guy Clark song for Guy Clark. On a guitar Guy Clark had built that he may consider his favorite. In Guy Clark’s house. Wow.

The label inside the instrument was unlike any I had seen before. “I prick my little finger and smear blood on the label and then sign through it,” he said.

Then, when I thought life couldn’t get any better, he handed me a steel-string that he had also built. “I also build these to play on stage, but not this particular one.” It had no strap-pin or electronics for amplification. “That one sounds so good, I decided to keep it in the house,” Guy said.

“Do you mind if I put a pick to it,” I asked and he said, “Sure. That’s what you’re s’posed to do.” I pulled a pick from my pocket and played him one of my songs, Old Lighthouse.

“Thank you very much for letting me play your guitars,” I said as I handed it back to him. “Oh sure,” he replied, “I love it when other people play ‘em.”

In his song Dublin Blues, Guy refers to witnessing excellence in viewing Michelangelo’s David and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, not to mention hearing Doc Watson pick the Columbus Stockade Blues. In my own case, I haven’t seen David or Mona Lisa. But I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues and many other songs and I agree with Guy about that. Now, I’ve had a visit with Guy Clark and the opportunity to play his guitars. For me, that ranks right up there with anybody’s milestones of excellent experiences.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr.

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