With a melody based on the Cajun song "Grand Texas", some sources, including Allmusic, claim that the song was co-written by Williams and Moon Mullican, with Williams credited as sole author and Mullican receiving ongoing royalties. Williams' biographer Colin Escott speculates that it is likely Mullican wrote at least some of the song and Hank's music publisher Fred Rose paid him surreptitiously so that he wouldn't have to split the publishing with Moon's label King Records. Williams' song resembles "Grand Texas" in melody only. "Grand Texas" is a song about a lost love, a woman who left the singer to go with another man to "Big Texas"; "Jambalaya", while maintaining a Cajun theme, is about life, parties and stereotypical food of Cajun cuisine. The protagonist leaves to pole a pirogue – a flat-bottomed boat – down the shallow water of the bayou, to attend a party with his girlfriend Yvonne, and her family. At the feast they have Cajun cuisine, notably Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo and drink liquor from fruit jars. Yvonne is his "ma chaz ami-o", which is Cajun French for "my good girlfriend" (“ma chère amie” in French). Williams uses the term "ma chaz ami" as one word, thus the "my" in front of it. The "o" at the end of "ami" is a poetic/lyrical device making the line match the phrasing of the previous line and rhyme with it.
Williams recorded the song on June 13, 1952, his first recording session in six months, at Castle Studio in Nashville with backing provided by Jerry Rivers (fiddle), Don Helms (steel guitar), Chet Atkins (lead guitar), Chuck Wright (bass) and probably Ernie Newton (bass). Interestingly, the recording Williams made differs significantly from Mullican's. Since the original melody of the song was from "Grand Texas," the song is a staple of Cajun culture. However, although Williams kept a Louisiana theme, the song is not a true cajun song, and it is precisely because of this that song gained such widespread popularity:
"Ethnic music is usually unpalatable for a mass market unless it is diluted in some way (Harry Belafonte's calypsos, Paul Simon's Graceland...the list is endless). The broader audience related to 'Jambalaya' in a way that it could never relate to a true cajun two-step led by an asthmatic accordian and sung in patois."
Released in July 1952, it reached number one on the U.S. country charts for fourteen non-consecutive weeks. After Williams released his version, Cajuns recorded the song again using Cajun instruments. However, they used Williams' lyrics translated into the Cajun French language. "Jambalaya" remains one of Hank Williams' most popular songs today; it is likely that every cajun and zydeco band is obliged to play it whether they want to or not. International, translated or derived versions do exist at least in Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French, Italian, PolishGerman, Spanish and Estonian.
A demo version of Williams singing "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" with just his guitar, likely recorded in 1951, is also available. Williams composed a sequel to the song from the female perspective, "I'm Yvonne (Of the Bayou)", with Jimmy Rule, recorded by Goldie Hill. It was not as popular. As with "Jambalaya" there is speculation that Williams may have purchased this song from Mullican.
Drifting Cowboy steel guitarist Don Helms released his own instrumental version in 1962.
Ex-Hong Kong female singer, CHANG Loo (張露), covered this song twice. The first version was covered in Mandarin Chinese entirely, under title name of 小癩痲 in the mid-1950s. The second one was covered, in alternate English and Mandarin Chinese, under the name of Jambalaya/小癩痲 on her album An Evening with Chang Loo in 1963.
The Carpenters featured the song, in an uptempo MOR version with country flourishes, on their 1973 album Now & Then. Their version was released as a single outside the United States in 1974 and sold well in the UK (peaking at number 12 in the charts) and Japan.
In 1974, Singapore-based female singer, Ervinna, covered this song, on her LP album Top Hits Vol. 2 with the local White Cloud Records.
In 2005, two versions of "Jambalaya" surged in Mexican folk music, one by Banda Limón and the other from the Duranguense group K-Paz de la Sierra. However, in Mexican music, the most famous cover version is by Los Felinos.