“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 go with the words, “Oh, When the…,” it’s a matter of dollars and Saints.
I heard it from “his master’s voice”
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…
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.
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