When The Saints Go Marching In – Origins of the Gospel Song

by K-Berens
When the Saints Come Marching Home played by a band during a jazz funeral

“When the Saints Go Marching In” is traditionally played while accompanying the casket or urn to to the cemetery during a jazz funeral.

Arguably one of the most catchy and well-known pieces in gospel history, When The Saints Go Marching In is an example of a song that has penetrated many genres across the musical spectrum. The song itself has been performed by many artists in many different decades since it was first written. Fats Domino recorded an early rock and roll version, Dolly Parton a country version while new wave artists Tears for Fears put out their own alternative version of the song.

This traditionally Christian hymn has wrongly been attributed to lyricist Katharine Purvis and musician James Milton Black who wrote the similarly titled When The Saints Are Marching In a soulful piece with an entirely different melody and lyrics. In 1937 Luther G. Presley, a music teacher from Arkansas, who has been credited with writing over 1,100 hymns, wrote the lyrics to When the Saints Go Marching In and Virgil O. Stamps wrote the music.

Traditionally this song has been used in many funeral marches, with a prominent place within jazz funerals in New Orleans, Louisiana. This popularity, as well as the well-known version released by jazz musician Louis Armstrong released soon after it was written, helped the song soar in prominence within the pop music world and turned it into a jazz standard.

When played at a funeral, the song is often played at a slower tempo when the casket is present and is being brought to burial and a reprise of the song is played at a faster, more lively beat when leaving the cemetery.

Although the lyrics of the song vary greatly with every version, the traditional lyrics have many apocalyptic images and deal with the idea of Judgement Day as told in the Book of Revelation. On Judgement Day, seven trumpets are sounded by seven angels each with a different warning to sinners from God. Blood, fire and stars falling from the sky, as written in the song, all describe the individual events that happen after each trumpet sounds. The lyrics “I want to be in that number” are referring to details of the prophecy in Revelation, in which 144,000 people were said to be redeemed servants of the living God and those people would be the ones who would make it into heaven.

Though there are many versions of the lyrics these are the words most commonly sung.

When The Saints Go Marching In

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.

Watch Louis Armstrong’s version from 1961.

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