Sunday, May 19, 2024

Quote of the Day (Timmy Fisher, on the ‘Rich History’ of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’)

“If you played a musical instrument as a child, it's likely that you learnt ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ The melody is a gift for beginners: cheery, repetitive, largely stepwise. The words, meanwhile, are easy to adapt, making it a favourite for group singalongs. You'll hear it passed around campfires or belted from football terraces. Indeed, few songs in the western world are better known — a fact recognised by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 when it was awarded ‘Towering Song’ status for having ‘influenced our culture in a unique way over many years.’ But, unlike ‘Happy Birthday to You’, ‘Over the Rainbow’ or any of the other 19 songs recognised in this way, ‘When the Saints’ has no standard version and no known composer—just a rich history of transformation.”—Music critic, editor, and podcaster Timmy Fisher, “The Life of a Song: ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’” The Financial Times, May 18-19, 2024

Fisher traces this classic American song past the jazz rendition that Louis Armstrong popularized, even beyond its first recording in 1923 by the New York gospel group, the Paramount Jubilee Singers, back to—if you can believe it—the plainchant “In Paradisum,” which became part of the Catholic requiem mass after being written down sometime between 996 and 1011.

Now, I’m not going to argue with Fisher’s credentials as a well-informed music maven. But I can assure him that nothing in the “rich history of transformation” he mentions compares to the rendition of this song on the sideline of football games played by St. Cecilia High School (what else did you expect?) in Englewood, NJ.

At the zenith of my alma mater’s gridiron glory, stretching from Vince Lombardi’s start as a football coach to a couple of years before it closed in 1986, “Saints” cheerleaders would lead the packed stadium with syncopated hand clapping and shouts as fans sensed victory.

I can assure Fisher that, no matter what he might believe, nothing before in the history of this much-played song could compare to the groundswell of glorious noise on these occasions—and, at this increasingly late stage in my life, I doubt that anything from now on ever will.

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