When the Saints Go Marching In

This classic African-American spiritual was one of jazz music’s inspirations, and this arrangement has both solemn and lively sections to help showcase its history!

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When the Saints Go Marching In, sometimes referred to as The Saints, is a African-American spiritual that has achieved popularity as an early jazz standard. Louis Armstrong’s recording from May 13, 1938 is one of the best known versions of this piece.

The origins of this song are unclear and made murkier by inaccurate scholarship. It apparently came into being in the early 1900s from a number of similarly titled gospel songs (which have sometimes been mistaken for this piece), including the 1896 gospel tune When the Saints Are Marching In by Katharine Purvis and James Milton Black and the 1908 gospel piece When the Saints March In for Crowning by Harriet Jones and J. D. Vaughan. It is important to recognize that even though some authoritative sources claim Purvis or Jones as authors of the spiritual, neither one is the creator of this important work. After the piece achieved wide popularity, many New Orleans musicians unsuccessfully attempted to claim a copyright on it.

The music itself may have derived from the plainchant In Paradisum, which opens with the same 4 notes in the same rhythm. This melody is the only one of the Requiem Mass sung outside the church at the graveside. Wynton Marsalis suggests that black musicians decided to “riff” on the first notes of this tune–the only tune they may have heard as part of a Catholic funeral given the widespread segregation of the time–for returning joyfully back to town now that Heaven opened its doors for a new Saint to enter.

The first known recorded version was in 1923 by the Paramount Jubilee Singers with the title When All the Saints Come Marching In. No composer or lyricist is shown on the label. Many other gospel versions were recorded in the 1920s, with slightly varying titles.

The earliest versions were slow and stately, but as time passed the recordings became more rhythmic. James L. King III does both in this unique arrangement that may surprise congregations if performed in church, and will always be a fun showstopping recital piece!

Historical information, including facsimiles of the hymns often mistaken for the spiritual, are included.

Key: C Major

Mood: stately, majestic, then very happy and lively

Pedagogy: rubato, staccato, walking bass, dynamics, syncopation


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