When the Saints Go Marching In

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"When the Saints Go Marching In", often referred to as "The Saints", is an American gospel hymn. The precise origins of the song are not known. Though it originated as a Christian hymn, it is often played by jazz bands. This song was first recorded on May 13, 1938 by Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra.[1] The song is sometimes confused with a similarly titled composition "When the Saints are Marching In" from 1896 by Katharine Purvis (lyrics) and James Milton Black (music).[2]


The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, a painting by Fra Angelico, 15th century

Luther G. Presley,[3] who wrote the lyrics, and Virgil Oliver Stamps, who wrote the music, popularized the tune as a gospel song.[4] A similar version was copyrighted by R.E. Winsett.[5] Although the song is still heard as a slow spiritual number, since the mid 20th century it has been more commonly performed as a "hot" number.[citation needed] The tune is particularly associated with the city of New Orleans. A jazz standard, it has been recorded by a great many jazz and pop artists.

Both vocal and instrumental renditions of the song abound. Louis Armstrong was one of the first to make the tune into a nationally known pop tune in the 1930s. Armstrong wrote that his sister told him she thought the secular performance style of the traditional church tune was inappropriate and irreligious. Armstrong was in a New Orleans tradition of turning church numbers into brass band and dance numbers that went back at least to Buddy Bolden's band at the start of the 20th century.

In New Orleans, the song is traditionally used as a funeral march at "jazz funerals". While accompanying the coffin to the cemetery, a band plays the tune as a dirge. Returning from the interment, the band switches to the familiar upbeat "hot" or "Dixieland" style of play.

The tune was brought into the early rock and roll repertory by Fats Domino and (as "The Saint's Rock and Roll") by Bill Haley & His Comets. Haley's version eschewed the traditional lyrics in favor of verses that introduced the members of his band (who then performed instrumental breaks).

It is nicknamed "The Monster" by some jazz musicians, as it seems to be a frequent request for Dixieland bands, and some musicians dread being asked to play it several times a night. The musicians at Preservation Hall in New Orleans got so tired of playing the song that in the 1960s a sign announcing the band's fee schedule ran $1 for standard requests, $2 for unusual requests, and $5 for "The Saints". By 2012 the price had gone up to $20.[citation needed]

This tune is a popular rallying song for sports teams. It is the anthem of Southampton F.C., St Patrick's Athletic, St Kilda Football Club, St George Illawarra Dragons, Northampton Saints, Christies Beach Football Club, St Johnstone Football Club and the St Helens RLFC. The song is played after every home goal scored by the St. Louis Blues.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry, also known as "The Saints", used it as their regimental march.


As with many numbers with long traditional folk use, there is no one "official" version of the song or its lyrics. This extends so far as confusion as to its name, with it often being mistakenly called "When the Saints Come Marching In". As for the lyrics themselves, their very simplicity makes it easy to generate new verses. Since the first, second, and fourth lines of a verse are exactly the same, and the third standard throughout, the creation of one suitable line in iambic tetrameter generates an entire verse.

It is impossible to list every version of the song, but a common standard version runs:

Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the drums begin to bang
Oh, when the drums begin to bang
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the stars fall from the sky
Oh, when the stars fall from the sky
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the moon turns red with blood
Oh, when the moon turns red with blood
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the fire begins to blaze
Oh, when the fire begins to blaze
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

Often the first two words of the common third verse line ("Lord, how I want...") are sung as either "Oh how," "Oh, Lord" or even "Lord, Lord" as grace notes to the simple melody at each 3rd line.

Arrangements vary considerably. The simplest is just an endless repetition of the chorus. Verses may be alternated with choruses, or put in the third of 4 repetitions to create an AABA form with the verse as the bridge.

One common verse in "hot" New Orleans versions runs (with considerable variation) like thus:

I used to have a playmate
Who would walk and talk with me
But since she got religion
She has turned her back on me.

Some traditional arrangements often have ensemble rather than individual vocals. It is also common as an audience sing-along number. Versions using call and response are often heard, e.g.:

Call: Oh when the Saints
Response: Oh when the Saints!

The response verses can echo the same melody or form a counterpoint melody, often syncopated opposite the rhythm of the main verses, and a solo singer might sing another counterpoint melody (solo soprano or tenor) as a 3rd part in more complex arrangements.

Analysis of the traditional lyrics[edit]

The song is apocalyptic, taking much of its imagery from the Book of Revelation, but excluding its more horrific depictions of the Last Judgment. The verses about the Sun and Moon refer to Solar and Lunar eclipses; the trumpet (of the Archangel Gabriel) is the way in which the Last Judgment is announced. The phrase "I want to be in that number" refers to the specific number of "144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth", given as prophecy in Revelation. The Jehovah's Witness's Bible speaks of these people as being "sealed" as "servants of God", without specifically calling them saints. As the hymn expresses the wish to go to Heaven, picturing the saints going in (through the Pearly Gates), it is entirely appropriate for funerals.

Artists who have performed and recorded the song[edit]

This is not a comprehensive list, but includes some notable versions.

As gospel hymn[edit]

Recorded by bluesman Sleepy John Estes accompanied by second guitar and kazoo for Bluebird Records in Chicago, 1941 [6]

This song is available in the Elvis Presley compilation Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings. Sony BMG/Elvis Music [7]

With traditional lyrics[edit]

As mentioned in the article on the song itself, in the 1930s, Louis Armstrong helped make The Saints into a jazz standard.

The tune was brought into the early rock and roll repertory by Fats Domino as one of the traditional New Orleans numbers he often played to rock audiences. Domino would usually use "The Saints" as his grand finale number, sometimes with his horn players leaving the stage to parade through the theater aisles or around the dance floor.

Judy Garland sang it in her own pop style.

Elvis Presley performed the song during the Million Dollar Quartet jam session and also recorded a version for his film, Frankie and Johnny.

Other early rock artists to follow Domino's lead included Jerry Lee Lewis and Tony Sheridan (featuring then-unknown band The Beatles as a backing group).

Tears For Fears performed the song and on the Live from Santa Barbara CD.

Bruce Springsteen with The Seeger Sessions Band Tour includes the song as an encore for some shows.

Dolly Parton has also included the song in a gospel medley, as has Trini Lopez in a mixed gospel/folk medley (Trini Lopez at PJ's)

Actor Hal Linden performed the song with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem during his guest appearance on The Muppet Show.

With non-traditional lyrics[edit]

Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye performed a comedy duet version in the 1959 film The Five Pennies, naming composers and musicians who would play "on the day that the saints go marching in".

Woody Guthrie sang a song called "When The Yanks Go Marching In" in 1943.

In 1983, Aaron Neville, along with New Orleans musicians Sal and Steve Monistere and Carlo Nuccio and a group of players for the New Orleans Saints American football team) recorded a popular version of the song incorporating the team's "Who Dat?" chant.[8]

French group Dionysos's album La Mécanique du cœur (2007, The Mechanic of the Heart) contains a version of this song, in collaboration with the French singer Arthur H.

Many supporters of association football teams sing versions of the song, "Saints" is often replaced with the name or nickname of the club, for example, "When the Saints Go Marching In" (Southampton FC), "When the Reds Go Marching In (Liverpool FC)", "When the Spurs Go Marching In" (Tottenham Hotspur) or "When the Stripes Go Marching In", as a rally song during football matches.[9][10][11] The St Kilda Football Club, an Australian rules football Club use a variation as their theme song. The main variation being in the chorus 'oh how I want to be in St Kilda'.

As noted above, Bill Haley & His Comets released a rock and roll version (with lyrics referencing the members of the Comets) in 1955 on Decca Records, entitled "The Saints Rock and Roll". The group also recorded new versions of the song for Orfeon Records in 1966 and Sonet Records in 1968, as well as numerous live versions.

The Human Failure Rate recorded a short, stripped down version that combines a verse of traditional lyrics with a verse of a more political view. The song begins slowly on acoustic guitar and ends with drums bass and a heavily distorted guitar.

Japanese voice actress Kotono Mitsuishi performed a cover in 1995.

With no lyrics[edit]

The 1958 rock and roll instrumental song Rebel Rouser by Duane Eddy, was loosely based on this tune.

The rhythm of "When the Saints Go Marching In" was adapted by Dick Powell's Four Star Television for its legal drama, The Law and Mr. Jones starring James Whitmore, which ran on ABC from 1960-1962.[12]

Big Chief Jazzband recorded the tune in Oslo on May 10, 1953. It was released on the 78 rpm record His Master's Voice A.L. 3307.

Al Hirt released a version on his 1963 album, Our Man in New Orleans[13] and was also featured on his greatest hits album, The Best of Al Hirt.[14]

It was recorded under the title of 'Revival' by Johnny and the Hurricanes. The band's management claimed authorship.[15]

A portion of the song was also used in the "boss" music of the "Out of This Dimension" Easter egg stage in the game Star Fox for the SNES.

A techno remix of this song, titled "Saints Go Marching," is a playable song in some versions of Dance Dance Revolution.

The song has been used as a fight song for many schools, including Providence College and Saint Joseph's University. The Baylor University Golden Wave Marching band plays the song during Baylor football games right after a touchdown is scored. The song is also the inspiration for the nickname of the New Orleans Saints.

The musical Urinetown includes a parody homage of "Saints" entitled "Run, Freedom Run" as its protest theme.

An arrangement of "When the Saints Go Marching In" is also the official march of the Royal Hälsinge Air Force Wing (F 15 Söderhamn) in Sweden.[16]

Popular culture[edit]

  • The children's television show Barney & Friends has a song called "Walk Across the Street" sung to this tune.[17]
  • This song was actually used from the episode Dr. Horatio's Magic Orchestra in Disney's animated TV series, Goof Troop.
  • Amy Rose sung the song for her audition of Sonic the Hedgehog's sidekick in the debut episode of Sonic Boom.
  • A version by The US Navy Southwest Regional Band was used in the 2006 film Déjà Vu.

See also[edit]


  • The Book of World Famous Music, Classical, Popular and Folk by James Fuld (1966)
  1. ^ http://www.on-this-day.com/onthisday/thedays/music/may13.htm
  2. ^ CyberHymnal: http://hymntime.com/tch/htm/w/s/a/wsamarch.htm
  3. ^ Luther Presley Collection
  4. ^ "When the Saints Go Marching In" arranged by Luther G. Presley & Virgil O. Stamps, Starlit Crown (Pangburn, AR: Stamps-Baxter Music Company, 1937).
  5. ^ Ruth Winsett Shelton, editor. Best Loved Songs and Hymns (Dayton, TN: R. E. Winsett Music Company, 1961), Item 158.
  6. ^ Illustrated Sleepy John Estes discography
  7. ^ Barnes & Noble.com - Audio Player: Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings [Box Set], Elvis Presley, CD
  8. ^ Dave Walker, "'Who dat?' popularized by New Orleans Saints fans when 'everybody was looking for the sign'", Times-Picayune, January 12, 2010, pp. A1, A10 (Saint Tammany Edition).
  9. ^ [1][dead link]
  10. ^ Listen to When The Reds Go Marching In football song. Stoke MP3 FIFA 13 SCFC chant. Fanchants.co.uk. Retrieved on 2013-07-29.
  11. ^ Listen to Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In football song. Spurs MP3 FIFA 13 THFC chant. Fanchants.co.uk. Retrieved on 2013-07-29.
  12. ^ ClassicTVThemes, The Law and Mr. Jones: http://www.classicthemes.com/50sTVThemes/themePages/lawAndMrJones.html
  13. ^ Al Hirt, Our Man in New Orleans Retrieved April 10, 2013.
  14. ^ Al Hirt, The Best of Al Hirt Retrieved April 11, 2013.
  15. ^ Johnny and the Hurricanes
  16. ^ Sandberg, Bo (2007). Försvarets marscher och signaler - För och nu. Uppsala: Militärmusiksamfundet med Svenskt Marscharkiv. ISBN 978-91-631-8699-8.  Viewed 2012-05-09 (Swedish).
  17. ^ Gretchen Marie-Goode, "Walk Around The Block With Barney", Hartford Courant, May 6, 1999.

External links[edit]