It is a little early to celebrate it but we are coming up to the 200th anniversary of the fight commemorated in one of America’s favourite records of all time.
The main Battle Of New Orleans actually took place in January 1815 but the build-up probably started as the song says …
In 1814 we took a little trip/
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans/
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.
The song is a rousing and funny celebration of a resounding victory for a ragbag assembly of republican Americans, under the leadership of future US president Andrew ‘Old HIckory’ Jackson, against an invading force of regular soldiers representing the King of England. Anyone with a bolshie streak can hear why the Americans love it and it has been a British hit a couple of times, in spite of its crowing over the memory of redcoats on the run.
It was the last engagement of the War of 1812, which arose out of residual conflicts between the UK and the fledgling USA, 30 years after the War of American Independence. George III was still officially King, although he was well into his famous Madness by then and the war was run by his government and his son, the future George IV.
The story of the song is told by blogger Tom Simon at http://www.tsimon.com/battle.htm/
The words were written, to an old fiddle tune, around 1936, by a history teacher in Arkansas, James Morris, who started writing songs to engage his pupils but later became a popular artist known as Jimmy Driftwood. It was one of the first songs he recorded when he was picked up by a publishing company set up by Porter Wagoner and guitarist Don Warden and they did a deal with Chet Atkins at RCA, in the second half of the 1950s, to record a Driftwood album. Johnny Horton, who incidentally was married to Hank Williams’s widow, Billie Jean, heard it on the radio and loved it and made the version which topped the U.S. charts in 1959. He died in a car crash the following year, making Billie Jean a country star’s widow twice over.
Hear the Johnny Driftwood version of Battle Of New Orleans at http://tinyurl.com/plf4qwp/ He also, incidentally, wrote Tennessee Stud.
The most coherent version I can find of what happened in the UK is told by a Canadian radio man called Doug Thompson on a blogsite run by a semi-retired musician called Bob Segarini, based in Toronto – http://tinyurl.com/puuuxts/
The Canadians have a special interest in the Battle of New Orleans because the War of 1812 was partly about whether the USA, Britain or France, would run Canada.
Although the Brits got a tonking at New Orleans, that was probably partly because their hearts were no longer in it – a truce was in process. The Americans had had their own setbacks. The war was basically declared a draw and part of the settlement involved Canada for the King.
According to Doug Thompson, the BBC would not play the Horton record because of the line about “the bloody British”. We can guess that the colonial cheek upset the establishment more than the swearing. Anyway, Horton recorded another version in which the singer marched with Pakenham (the English commander) and saw off “the rebels” – http://tinyurl.com/nztct6n/
But to be on the safe side, a British star, the most excellent Lonnie Donegan, was also allowed to record a version.
Donegan used to perform the song with an introduction which made clear it was about a British defeat – hear that at http://tinyurl.com/qjayrwp/ and/or catch the song and a rough video of Lonnie and band performing in 1960 at http://tinyurl.com/p692xxa/
But Donegan apparently made a confusing mistake. He marched with Pakenham but still routed “the blooming British”. In other words, he mixed up Horton’s two contradictory versions of history and came up with a nonsensical compromise. Still, he got the rhythm right and got a Number 2 in the British charts. The Horton record got lost but the original American version of it became a hit in the mid-60s, I recall, although I can’t trace the date. It was shown on Top of the Pops with a rather nice animation in Lego, which you can find, along with the song, at http://tinyurl.com/pbukxrr/
Later, Donegan recorded a rather funky version known as Battle of New Orleans #2 – http://tinyurl.com/kqx5wk5/ – in which he finally fights “the bloody British”, although still under the command of Pakenham for some reason.
In the comments on that YouTube posting, drummer Mark Goodwin says: “I remember this session well. I was on kit, Melt Kingston Bass, Pete Bocking Guitar, Graham Elliot on Keyboards and Gus York (ex Val Doonican amongst others) on Pedal Steel. We recorded it at Tooting Studios in Tooting Beck London in about 1971/2 if my memory serves me.”
The track is on a CD called Lonnie Live.
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