When The Saints Go Marching In; origins uncertain, but credited circa1896. To begin, it was a Christian hymn, though by now it’s probably better known as a Jazz tune. A common New Orleans tradition is to play “When the Saints” during a funeral. Slowly, while accompanying the procession to the cemetery. Then jazzy, on the way back. That seems appropriate, for a couple of reasons. First, because the traditional lyrics deal with wanting to be part of the number entering heaven in the procession of saints. When it’s time to go, what better way than to be included in a triumphal parade of saints? Secondly, because death is both sad, and a celebration. So we honor the loss on the way to the cemetery, and celebrate the life on the way back. Just my opinion, anyway. Several traditions hold that death need not be a bad thing. As a Christian, it’s mainly sad for those left behind, who will miss the ones that have moved on.
Louis Armstrong really brought When the Saints Go Marching In to the forefront of popular awareness. He modernized several hymns into band/dance music, but when he did “Saints”, he really branded a modern icon into the cultural mainstream. There’s a story that his sister disapproved, telling him making church music into secular music was ‘inappropriate and irreligious’. Her opinion doesn’t seem to have slowed him down, though I have to hope he at least respected her opinion. It’s not a hard and fast rule that sisters are right… but generally, they possess uncommonly good sense. :^)
Another story I like is from the experience of jazz musicians taking requests. When it comes to requesting songs from dixieland bands, “When the Saints” seems to be the only one some people know to ask for. Because the players grew to dread the inevitable request, it’s often referred to as “The Monster” by the musicians. Some bands began charging small amounts for normal requests, more for unusual requests, and top dollar to do ‘Saints’. That seems pretty smart. It either slows down the requests, or makes the night a lot more profitable. To learn more, visit the Wiki page here.
Having been around so long, and lending itself so well to simple lyrics, there are nearly limitless variations on the verses. I don’t think it matters so much which words you sing, the point of singing and playing the song is all about the spirit it’s intended in. Played slow, played fast, When the Saints Go Marching In can suit just about anybody’s taste in gospel music.