“When the Saints Go Marching In” is usually attributed to James M. (Milton) Black (1856-1938) and Katherine E. Purvis, who died in 1909. Both Black and Purvis were associated with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She was a music teacher at the seminary and he was a song leader and Sunday school teacher who also wrote songs and edited Gospel song books. However, the website devoted to hymns, hymntime.com, explains that this song is a spiritual that has been around for an indeterminant amount of time. It has been confused with “When the Saints Are Marching In,” the song composed by Black with lyrics by Purvis and copyrighted in 1896. The site plays the Black composition and prints out Purvis’ lyric, both of which are decidedly different than “When the Saints Go Marching In,” popularized by Louis Armstrong who first recorded it on May 13, 1938, and has recorded it some 40 times since then. His version charted in 1939, rising to #10 over four weeks.
The song enjoyed a revival in 1951 when the Weavers (composed of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman) recorded it with Leo Diamond and His Orchestra. Their version rose to number 27, and that same year the Percy Faith Orchestra took it to number 29. In 2005 “When the Saints Go Marchin In” became the name of the weeklong relief effort to aid New Orleans victims of hurricane Katrina, and it is the title of a short film about the disaster.
Armstrong had grown up knowing the gospel tune, played somberly for funerals by the marching bands that accompanied the mourners to the graveyard and played joyously on their return. Armstrong’s lively recording of the tune, in which he pretends to be a preacher delivering a sermon, transformed it into the jazz standard we know today, closely associated with New Orleans’ Dixieland bands and performed by musicians of every style. So well known is the song that it is commonly referred to as “The Saints.” It was so often requested that bands, tired of playing it, charged extra to perform it. An old sign in New Orleans’ Preservation Hall advertised: “$1 for standard requests, $2 for unusual requests and $5 for the Saints.”
Throughout the years Armstrong constantly changed his performance of “The Saints,” and he is captured on film at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (Jazz on a Summer’s Day) and with Danny Kaye in the 1958 film The Five Pennies. For an in depth analysis of Armstrong’s relationship to the song and other filmed versions go to this webpage.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” may have contributed to the naming of the New Orleans Saints football team. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame,
The name Saints was the popular choice in a fan contest staged by the New Orleans States-Item. However, with or without the contest, the New Orleans team would most likely have been called the Saints. The franchise was awarded on All Saints Day, November 1, 1966. New Orleans was famous worldwide as the city of jazz and the famous marching song, “When the Saints Go Marching In”.
The song is played at all the New Orleans Saints games.
The lyric differs slightly with various performers and verses are constantly being added, but the most common version is:
We are trav’ling in the footsteps
Of those who’ve gone before,
And we’ll all be reunited,
On a new and sunlit shore,
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
No Dixieland band is without the song in their repertoire, and it has been recorded by everyone from Judy Garland to Elvis Presley and from the Ink Spots to the Beatles. Among jazz musicians who have recorded it are the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Harry James, and the Dorsey Brothers; vocalist Nat “King” Cole; clarinetist Sidney Bechet; saxophonist Coleman Hawkins; pianists Monty Alexander and Steve Allen; drummer Chico Hamilton; organist Joey DeFrancesco; and guitarist Mimi Fox.