An Analyses of "When the Saints Go Marching in"

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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 many spiritual references, particularly to heaven and the coming of God’s kingdom. In one of the verses, the author writes “Oh when the trumpet sounds its call, oh when the trumpet sounds its call, I want to be in that number, when the trumpet sounds its call,” which is a reference to a passage in the book of Revelations, located in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The passage describes the sounding of seven trumpets by angels of heaven. Each trumpet brings about a specific catastrophic event upon the world below, which is filled with those who were not taken in to heaven at the onset of the world’s end. Other references to things such as “…the moon turns red with blood...” and “…when the new world is revealed…” are tied in with the end of days described in Revelations, which the author describes a desire to avoid by being in heaven.

Though the original lyrics describe dark and unfortunate events, today “When the Saints” has a positive connotation attached to it. When it is performed in modern times, it is at a much faster tempo and the melody swings at an infectiously catchy pace. This change started probably due to a trend that originated in New Orleans that consisted of inserting a verse that discussed how a former...
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