“The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton
This song recounts an actual historical skirmish known as the Battle of New Orleans, which took place in the titular city on a particular date of 8 January 1815. During that era in history, the United States of America was still going at it with its former colonizer, the United Kingdom. And this battle was in fact between those two parties, fought on American soil.
And to make a long story short, whereas in the grand scheme of things the Battle of New Orleans had little significance, it was a major moral victory on behalf of the Americans. But why? Because they managed to kick British a*s, expeditiously even, despite the latter having a number of advantages.
Lyrics of “The Battle of New Orleans”
And such is basically the nature of this song, i.e. Johnny Horton using the opportunity to boast of a resounding victory on behalf of his countrymen. As presented the Americans fought valiantly, swiftly sending the invading British running for cover. And yes, there is a comical element to the lyrics also, as one is generally allowed to make fun of an adversary they so easily bested.
So near the end of the song for instance we have the vocalist, who is portraying the role of one of the soldiers involved in the battle, saying that after firing their cannon to the point that “the barrel melted down”, he and his comrades instead “grabbed an alligator”, “filled his head with cannon balls” and used it as a cannon instead, like a Looney Tunes’ cartoon or something.
So there is this element of mocking the British also. And this may seem out of place or offensive in the 21st century, but earlier in the 20th century memories of The Battle of New Orleans and what have you would have been fresher in the minds of Americans.
But more to the actual point is that this song was intended to be a history lesson for pupils. So teachers being compelled to come up with creative ways to educate restless students obviously isn’t as recent a phenomenon as some educationists like to think.
And at the end of the day, as history tells it, the Americans did pull off a miraculous history, suffering minimal casualties as compared to the losses they inflicted on their foe. Ultimately, as put forth earlier, that’s the point which the singer wishes to get across, that not only did they emerge victorious, but they did so in a manner whereas the British didn’t really stand a chance.
Facts about “The Battle of New Orleans”
The author of this piece was Jimmy Driftwood (1907-1998), a musical folklorist from Arkansas who is said to have written in excess of 6,000 songs throughout his lifetime.
At the time he wrote “The Battle of New Orleans”, Jimmy Driftwood was employed as a high school principal, not a musician. And the reason he did so was in the name of imparting the related history lesson onto students in a way that they would find interesting.
The song’s melody is from an even older song, a fiddle tune as it is classified, entitled The 8th of January, which is also related to the actual Battle of New Orleans.
Johnny Horton (1925-1960) himself was from L.A. He specialized in country music and related genres and had a very successful, albeit relatively-brief career. In fact the reason why he likely didn’t go on to become a national music legend, like his buddy Johnny Cash (1932-2003), as opposed to a more local one is because he died prematurely, in a car crash, at the age of 35.
The producer of this track is Don Law, an Englishman actually, who successfully headed the country music department of Columbia Records throughout most of the 1950s and 60s. And with this song coming out via Columbia on 1 April 1959, that’s how he was involved.
“The Battle of New Orleans” actually topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the year it was released. Moreover, it was the number 1 song on Billboard’s year-end ranking of 1959. And many years later, in 2008, the organization also declared it the “Top Billboard Hot 100 Country Song” of the first 50 years of the chart’s history. Also in 2008 they ranked it as the 28th top song in Billboard Hot 100 history in general.
This song has a long and rich history of being covered, by the likes of Johnny Cash (1972) and Dolly Parton (1977). And in terms of its more-popular usage, it is known to be a regular at sporting events, specifically in North America and perhaps most-notably by the Calgary Flames of the NHL.
“The Battle of New Orleans” also topped Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart, as well as the Cash Box Top 100. Outside of the US it bested music charts in Australia and Canada, in addition to charting in Italy and the UK. And in consideration of the United Kingdom, Johnny Horton also cut a more British-friendly version of the song.
Relatedly there was also a British singer by the name of Lonnie Donegan who reached number two on the UK Singles Chart with a modified rendition of “The Battle of New Orleans”.
This song also earned Jimmy Driftwood in particular a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1960, which by the way was only the second Grammy Awards ever held. And Johnny Horton also won a Grammy for his participation, specifically in the category of Best Country & Western Performance.
This track was certified gold by the RIAA, which at the time meant it sold at least a million copies. But at the behest of his wife, Johnny Horton traded in that trophy for a quartet of Golden Guitar certifications, also issued by the RIAA, which individually represent a country song that has sold at least a quarter-million copies.
Being a folk singer, at times Jimmy Driftwood would perform this song himself. And when he did, he would sometimes include an additional verse.