Today is a special day and a day to play a special tune. I first remember hearing this tune as part of a popular recording made in the late fifties by Johhny Horton:
In 1814 we took a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississippi
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’. There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’. Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
Almost all of us have heard this song version of a much older fiddle tune. Horton’s recording was so popular that it took the top spot among country music songs in Billboard magazine’s listing of the most popular songs of the first fifty years of recorded music.
The song lyrics were written in 1936 by a fellow named James Morris. You know him better by the name Jimmy Driftwood. He composed thousands of other folk songs, hundreds of which were recorded. Tennessee Stud is probably Driftwood’s second most familiar song.
Driftwood is no doubt one of the most interesting characters in the history of folk music. He grew up in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas and played an old guitar made by his grandfather. its neck was made from a fence rail, its sides from an old ox yoke, and the head and bottom from the headboard of his grandmother’s bed.
We looked down the river and we seed the British come. And there must have been a hundred of ’em beatin’ on the drum
They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring. We stood behind our cotton bales and didn’t say a thing
James Morris was working as a teacher in Timbo, Arkansas when he wrote the lyrics to his most famous song. Supposedly he wrote the song to encourage his students to learn more about American history. He set the words to the tune of a popular old time fiddle tune called the Eighth of January. The melody was originally named “Jackson’s Victory” after Andrew Jackson’s famous rout of the British at New Orleans on January, 8th, 1815. Over the years, Jackson’s popularity waned in the South and elsewhere. His association with the “Trail of Tears” for example still stirs resentment and in some parts of indian country it’s not easy to pass a twenty dollar bill.
So the name was changed to the Eighth of January to celebrate the battle rather than the commanding general. But the battle did make Jackson’s fame and led directly to his later election to the presidency.
Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise if we didn’t fire our muskets ’till we looked ’em in the eyes. We held our fire ’till we seed their faces well, then we opened up our squirrel guns and gave ’em bloody hell.
I had to type in that last line myself because it was not on the version recorded by Johnny Horton. In the late fifties one was not allowed to say “hell” or “damn’ in public unless you were a preacher. So the words had to be changed for the recorded version.
Yeah they ran through the briers and they ran through the brambles. And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em. On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
Hearing the song gives you a pretty good history lesson about what the battle must have been like two hundred and two years ago. Except perhaps for this last whimsical verse:
We fired our cannon ’till the barrel melted down. So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with cannonballs ‘n’ powdered his behind. And when we touched the powder off, the gator lost his mind
The Battle of New Orleans was one of the most lopsided in the history of warfare. An obscuring dense fog lifted just at the moment the Red Coats reached the most exposed position in their attack and seven hundred British soldiers lost their lives as opposed to seven on the American side. Fourteen hundred British were wounded yet only six Americans.
Ironically, all this loss of life was especially pointless. The Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 had already been signed. Communication was so slow in those days that none of the combatants knew about the peace until later and Jackson became a national hero in most people’s minds as the general who won the war against a world power who had burned the U.S. capital only five months before.
Maybe you’ll want to sing the song today, maybe not. But you should at least play or listen to the Eighth of January today. I play it every year no matter where I am. Here’s what Missouri fiddler Glenn Rickman, born in 1901, said about the tradition:
“I play the ‘Eighth of January’ over the telephone to a department store here. Every eighth of January I call up the department store and they put in on their loud speaker. This time I had it taped. I played ‘Carroll County Blues,…Sally Goodin’,…Forked Deer’ and ‘Eighth of January.’ I’m glad to get to do this. The ‘Eighth of January,’ that was known way back before my grandpa was born…”
Happy Eighth of January everybody.