An Analyses of "When the Saints Go Marching in" Essay

Words: 901
Pages: 4

Kevin Fickel
MUSC 105.003

An Analysis of “When the Saints Go Marching In”

The origins of “When the Saints” have never been fully explained in modern times. It was originally written as a Negro Spiritual hymn sometime near the beginning of the twentieth century. On written music, composers usually notate it as a traditional piece, but the identity of the original author remains up for debate. Some sources claim that the original lyrics of “When the Saints” were penned by Katherine Pervis and put to music by James Black in 1896, but many scholars today believe that Pervis and Black’s composition was a completely different piece of music due to it being titled “When the Saints Are Marching In”. Regardless, the original lyrics contain
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Armstrong’s rendition ushered in the more common rendition of “When the Saints” that emulates his fast tempo and upbeat tone. Armstrong also created a way of playing “When the Saints” that allowed for passages of improvisation, a mainstay in jazz music. The strophic form of the verses and running bass allows for other instruments to take turns improvising before returning to the original melody. However, this also caused “When the Saints” to become a more secular piece as it lost its previously sacred themes and lyrics. In a duet between Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye, the lyrics previously talking about the end of days and joining with others in heaven are replaced with a series of clever puns of the names of famous classical composers. This shows the shift of “When the Saints” from a sacred hymn intended to inspire to a song intended to entertain. Instead of being played in church sanctuaries, it mostly is performed at concerts by ensembles not affiliated with any particular church. In listening to different recordings of this timeless piece that I myself have performed a few times in my life, I was most surprised to learn that “When the Saints” was not always an upbeat jazz piece. Hearing the evolution of this song through the various recordings was very interesting. I can say that I have a newfound