Some of the best-known songs emerge from a complicated cocoon. While their words and melodies are so well known that the public feels as if they own them, their actual creators remain a matter of conjecture.
Take that indelible piece, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Around the turn of the last century, the tune began to be played by many New Orleans jazz bands. It occupied a privileged place in the ritualized repertoire with which they accompanied funerals. The melody arose when the mourners left the sorrow of the ceremony and returned to the comforts to be found in the life at hand. It soothed their loss and celebrated the continuity of the generations.
Where might they have learned it? Or who might have created it? Researchers believe it has its origins in the Bahamas, but somehow migrated to the mainland. Whatever the case, a song published in 1896 bears an uncanny similarity: “When the Saints Are Marching In,” music by James M. Black and words by Katherine E. Purvis, published Curtis & Jennings in Cincinnati, Ohio. Its chorus spoke of “Joyful songs of salvation thro’ the sky shall ring.” Another piece by Black, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” published in 1893, bears some relationship to the song we all know.
In the cauldron of creativity we simplify by the name of culture, the piece appeared in other published permutations: “When the Saints March In for Crowning” (1908), “When All The Saints Come Marching In” (1923), “When the Saints Go Marching Home” (1927), and, finally, “When the Saints Go Marching In” as part of Edward Boatner’s hymn book Spirituals Triumphant - Old and New, in 1927. A female gospel quartet recorded a version in 1925, and several bluesmen, including “Barbecue Bob” Hicks, gave their stamp to the tune during the late 1 920s.
Perhaps, however, the true trigger in the promotion of the song’s longevity may well have came from Louis Armstrong. He recorded it for Decca in 1938, and the impact of his gravely voice and ebullient trumpet solo clinched the public’s conviction that here was a song meant for the ages.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” appears on something close to a 1,000 recordings, and has been played by such music masters as the Beatles, Fats Domino, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Kingston Trio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and the Weavers. This year, it receives the lasting accolade of Towering Song from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.