In eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississipp'.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.
The question uppermost in the minds of history teachers, next to 'How soon can I retire?', is 'How do I get the kids to remember history?' Students are notoriously uninterested in things that happened, say, last week.
One answer, of course, is 'sing about it'. Music is a good way to fix the factoids in the memory. Add humour, a strong hook, and maybe a cuss word or two the PTA1 don't approve of, and you're home free. This is made easier if the teacher owns a guitar and has a good singing voice and an imagination.
Such a person was Jimmy Driftwood, the Arkansas teacher who composed more than 6,000 folk songs, played on his grandfather's homemade guitar – made of a fence rail, an ox yoke, and the headboard of an old bed. Driftwood's most famous song is arguably 'The Battle of New Orleans'. An unknown fiddler composed the popular tune sometime around 1815, Driftwood made up the lyrics in 1936, country singer Johnny Horton took the cuss words out, and the rest was history, no matter what the PTA thought about it.
Why Were They Fighting in New Orleans?
Old Hickory2 said we could take 'em by surprise
If we didn't fire a musket til we looked 'em in the eyes.
We held our fire3 til we see'd their faces well,
Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave 'em...well...
To set the stage: the War of 1812 began in 1812. Causes of this war vary according to who is telling the story. US historians refer to the war as the 'Second American Revolution', generally concluding that in this war, the early American Republic asserted its ability to defend itself against British aggression and the attempt to steal the Louisiana Purchase4. To British historians, the whole affair was an annoying distraction from the real task of defeating Napoleon Bonaparte. Nobody agrees on who won, either: Canadians insist that the whole thing was a draw, whereas US history books generally present the War of 1812 as a resounding US victory5.
At the time, there was a lot of confusion about the War of 1812. In fact, the war ended before some of the participants were aware of the fact. This is why a major battle of the War of 1812, known as the Battle of New Orleans, was concluded on 8 January, 1815, although the Treaty of Ghent (which ended the war) had been signed on Christmas Eve of the preceding year.
No one told Andrew Jackson or the British that. Jackson therefore led his forces to the greatest US land victory of that conflict, forcing the British who were trying to seize New Orleans back into their ships, and their navy back to somewhere near Biloxi. The popular fiddle tune that commemorates this event is called 'The 8th of January'. The tune continued to be popular well into the Great Depression, where it was recorded by the folklorists who trolled migrant camps6. The story might have ended there, but for an enterprising schoolteacher from Arkansas.
Can You Say That in School, Jimmy Driftwood?
Well, we fired our cannon til the barrel melted down,
Then we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.
We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind,
And when they tetched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.
James Corbitt Morris (1907-1998) was born in Timbo, Arkansas, the son of a folk singer. In the 1930s, he composed thousands of songs in the folk genre to help his high school students learn. In the 1950s, he recorded some of them, changing his name legally to Jimmy Driftwood. His first album, Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, did not sell very well, probably because of the catchy title. Popular singer Johnny Horton heard the album, however, and wanted to record 'The Battle of New Orleans'.
One problem with the song was getting airplay. To be playable, the song needed to be 'clean', and according to Jimmy Driftwood, you couldn't say 'hell' or 'damn' on the airwaves unless you were a licenced preacher7. Horton bowdlerised the lyrics for the McCarthy-era public, and a hit was born. Horton's recording was Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.
Since 'The Battle of New Orleans' originated as a folk song, it is easy to sing. Children couldn't resist singing it, with or without the swearing. The song's appeal lies in its carefree Schadenfreude and folksy humour. Who can resist the hyperbole of the alligator cannon?
Some Notes of a Linguistic Nature
Well, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
They ran so fast the hounds8 couldn't catch 'em
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf9 of Mexico.
'The Battle of New Orleans' was written by a native speaker of Arkansas dialect English. The song is best appreciated when sung with this accent. For example, the word 'briars' contains one syllable, and is pronounced 'brahrs'.
The key term, of course, is 'New Orleans'. The Big Easy's name is 'N'awhlins' when spoken locally. This is not easy to sing, nor does it scan well. The correct pronunciation in the song is 'New or-LEENS'.
It is recommended that this song be learned and sung to small children. Not only will they squeal with delight, but they might – just might – grow up to be historians. The tune is catchy and the lyrics memorable – even the verses not quoted here. Even the word 'bloody' is educational.