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The Rhythm of the Saints 

Over the years, the spiritual "When the Saints Go Marching In" has become the song of a city and its team.

When the New Orleans Saints are back on the playing field, myriad renditions of "When the Saints Go Marching In" cannot be far behind. The song has been the team's theme since its inception in 1967. Al Hirt, who played the tune as a regular part of his repertoire, was perhaps the Saints' most visible fan, and he played "When the Saints Go Marching In" regularly at home games. Hirt, a great football fan, headlined the halftime show at the first Super Bowl in 1967 and was involved in five Super Bowl celebrations.

Hirt also played "Saints" frequently during his association with Chris Owens, who uses the song as the climax of the live show she performs nightly at her Bourbon Street club.

"I've been singing 'When the Saints Go Marching In' forever," says Owens. "We do that every night in the show, we do it on cruises and when we play casinos. People always love it. That's a true New Orleans tradition. I don't think anyone ever gets tired of it. The tourists go crazy when we play it -- they do the second line. Sometimes we go out into the street, second line onto Bourbon Street and back into the club. Their eyes just light up when we play it, they bring their handkerchiefs."

Owens sticks to the first two familiar verses of the song. "I do it basically," she explains, "then I combine it with 'Come to the Mardi Gras' or patriotic songs, sometimes my dancers do the 'Who Dat?' dance.

"I'm a big football fan," Owens notes. "We used to get (former LSU football coach) Charlie McClendon ... in the club -- they all used to come. One night was very exciting, the owner of the Saints, Mr. (Tom) Benson came in with the team and he got his own umbrella and was up on stage dancing to 'When the Saints Go Marching In.'"

According to Times-Picayune sportswriter Jeff Duncan's Tales From the Saints Sideline, Dave Dixon was set on the team name from the moment he began his campaign to bring NFL football to New Orleans in 1963.

"It was Saints all the way," said Dixon, who handed out "New Orleans Saints" pencils as promotional items before the team even existed.

Even after The States-Item held a "name the team" contest shortly after then-National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle christened the franchise in 1966, Dixon's choice prevailed.

"It was a boat race all along," Dixon confided, using the old horseracing parlance for an event whose outcome was predetermined. The popularity of the song, particularly as a New Orleans cultural icon, was the clincher.

"How can you pass up the opportunity to have advertising 365 days a year?" Dixon reasoned. "It's as simple as that. Once I zeroed in on that, I said there can't be any other name."

The song, a traditional spiritual, has a history that predates current copyright law, making it fair game for any use. Saints fans know it as their own, but the song has had many faces over its lifetime. In fact, it's a popular telephone ringtone in England, where the Southampton Saints woman's football club has a strong following.

Dr. John's new album, the moving New Orleans tribute titled N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'udda, contains an unusual version of the song that has become the most talked-about track on the record.

The minor-key dirge has the kind of spooky, midnight-in-the-graveyard vibe that Dr. John specializes in, "Straight out of the Spiritual Church of New Orleans," as he describes it in the album's liner notes. The rhythm stutters, as if carrying a heavy burden, and the combination of the Davell Crawford-led choir and Wardell Querzerque's swelling string arrangement gives the song an otherworldly cast.

Mavis Staples, the female lead voice of the most successful crossover gospel group in history, the Staples Singers, was called in to share the "Saints" vocal with Dr. John, and was unprepared for the version she was presented with.

"I was shocked," she admits with a laugh. "Yes, I was. I said, 'Wait a minute, what is Dr. John doing here?' But of course he told me. Dr. John, when he sent it to me, he said (assuming a croaking voice), 'Baby, dis is da ol' way we did it in N' Awlinz.' He sang it real slow. And I know about the funerals they have in New Orleans. It sounded like one of those dragging songs on the way to the cemetery. Dr. John put that vocal down. He pulls it out (she sings in a slow, funereal cadence) 'ooooh ... when the saints ... go marchin' in ...).'

"I was really shocked because I never heard anybody sing it that way," Staples continues. "The first time I heard it I was a kid. (When) I heard it in church, it was up-tempo. That's the way I always heard it. With the Staples Singers, we always sang it real fast. 'Saints Go Marchin' In' was always a real up-tempo song. I did a tribute album to Mahalia Jackson a few years ago, and we go out with a Mahalia live tribute from time to time. 'The Saints Go Marching In' is not on the CD, but when I do the concerts, I sing 'Saints Go Marching In,' and it's always (she sings in a swinging cadence, turning to a high note at the end of each line), 'Whoa saints, go marchin in, oh the saints,' it's an up, happy tempo."

The church-trained Staples knew the song in its traditional role as a gospel hymn. "Saints" is a typical African-American spiritual with its roots in the days of slavery. These songs, written in a less rigid rhythmic and harmonic construction than standard European Protestant hymns, offer biblical models of deliverance. They reference events such as Exodus, in which Moses delivered the slaves from Egypt, or the Apocalypse, which promises an end to suffering for the righteous, who will be reunited with their ancestors. The latter scenario resonates strongly with the African religious traditions that were codified inside these hymns. "Saints" is steeped in apocalyptic imagery in its more complete versions, with references to the sun refusing to shine and the moon turning blood red, but is most often heard in a stripped-down version that references only the most joyous aspects of the song.

"Saints" would have stayed in church if it weren't for the peculiar transformational genius of Louis Armstrong. Traditional New Orleans jazz began enjoying a revival at the height of the swing era in the early 1930s. After Armstrong began his long-term association with Decca Records in the mid-1930s, the new label wanted to cash in on the "Dixieland" craze. Armstrong responded by rerecording some of his Hot 5 and Hot 7 sides and mining the New Orleans music tradition for "new" material. He went back to some of his earliest musical experiences in the brass bands and the spiritual tradition for "Saints" and several other jazz funeral songs.

Armstrong's recording of "Saints" on May 13, 1938, changed the song's orientation forever. Using his characteristic humor, he set up a mock jazz church for the occasion, with himself as the preacher. "Sisters and brothers, this is Rev. Satchmo getting ready to beat out this sermon for you," he intoned, all but passing the collection plate. "My text tonight is 'The Saints Go Marchin' In.' Here comes brother Higginbottom down the aisle with his trombone. Blow it, boys!" The nine-piece band broke into a meticulously arranged version of the song, with Armstrong scrapping everything except the exultant first verse and using his uncanny sense of phrasing to swing the lyric, hanging on the last syllable of "number" like an instrumentalist working a riff.

The song immediately became identified with Armstrong, who would go on to record more than 40 additional renditions among the thousands on record. It became the anthem of the Dixieland revival and a powerful Allied propaganda weapon in World War II Europe. In Budapest, the song became a metaphor for the Russian army driving the Nazis out of Hungary.

Eventually, like all mega-popular tunes, "Saints" even produced a backlash, creating the urban legend that musicians became so tired of requests for it that they demanded extra tip money to play the song. When Duke Ellington toured Russia in 1971, he was asked repeatedly to play the song and refused, finally relenting enough to play "Hello, Dolly!" a la Armstrong for the Dixieland-hungry Russians.

To this day, the author of this magic verse remains anonymous.

"Nobody knows who wrote it," says Mavis Staples. "It might be in The Gospel Pearls. The Gospel Pearls is an old gospel songbook that has all the traditional gospel songs in it. I'm gonna have to try to find Pops' old Gospel Pearls. I never even thought about that. Nobody knows who wrote it. Well I'll be darned.

"Whoever wrote it sure wrote one."

"When the Saints Go Marching In"

Here are the entire lyrics to the traditional spiritual, "When the Saints Go Marching In":

I am just a lonesome traveler,

Through this big wide world of sin;

Want to join that grand procession,

When the saints go marchin' in.

Oh when the saints go marchin' in,

Oh when the saints go marchin' in,

Lord I want to be in that number

When the saints go marchin' in.

All my folks have gone before me,

All my friends and all my kin;

But I'll meet with them up yonder,

When the saints go marchin' in.

Oh when the saints go marchin' in,

Lord I want to be in that number,

When the saints go marchin' in.

Come and join me in my journey,

'cause it's time that we begin;

And we'll be there for that judgment,

When the saints go marchin' in.

Oh when the saints go marchin' in,

We will be in line for that judgment,

When the saints go marchin' in.

And when the stars begin to shine,

then Lord let me be in that number;

And when the stars begin to shine,

When Gabriel blows in his horn,

Then Lord let me be in that number.

When Gabriel blows in his horn,

And when the sun refuse to shine,

Then Lord let me be in that number.

When the sun refuse to shine;

And when the moon has turned to blood,

Then Lord let me be in that number.

When the moon has turned to blood,

And when they crown Him King of Kings,

Then Lord let me be in that number, When they crown Him King of Kings.


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