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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

July 21, 2015: Billboard #1s: “The Battle of New Orleans”



[75 years ago this week, Billboard magazine released its first chart of American popular music hits. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five #1 hits and their cultural and social contexts. Share your thoughts on these and any other pop hits, classic or contemporary, for a chart-topping crowd-sourced post!]
On the #1 hit that stands alone, and why it’s worth remembering.
By the late 1950s, rock ‘n roll (or at least the emerging genres and artists that would come to constitute it) was here to stay, as illustrated by Elvis Presley’s back to back end-of-year #1 hits, “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956) and “All Shook Up” (1957). But I’ve written a good bit in this space about both the complex Presley and the cross-cultural rise of rock ‘n roll, so I wanted here to focus on a very different late 1950s #1 hit, a song distinct both from its contemporaries and from just about any other hit on the end-of-year list: Johnny Horton’s 1959 country music cover of Jimmy Driftwood’s American folk anthem “The Battle of New Orleans,” itself based on the classic fiddle tune “the 8th of January” (the battle’s date). Horton’s version was not only the #1 pop and country song of 1959, but was ranked by Billboard as the 28th ranked song and #1 country song from the chart’s first 50 years, making it one of the most successful songs of the century by these measures.
The collaborative nature of popular music about which I wrote in yesterday’s post is even more evident, and more multi-part and unique, in Horton’s hit. Driftwood was a high school principal in Arkansas who decided to write lyrics about the battle and set them to the folk tune’s existing music; his version became popular, and he was discovered by country artist and producer Don Warden and given an RCA contract in 1958 to record a dozen songs. The song has since been covered many times, but never as successfully as its first cover, by the newly popular country and rockabilly artist Johnny Horton; Horton’s cover appeared on his debut album, The Spectacular Johnny Horton (1959), and not only catapulted the song to international visibility but launched a brief craze for “historical ballads” by Horton and others (as exemplified by Horton’s second album, Johnny Horton Makes History [1960]). Had Horton not tragically been killed in a car accident in November 1960, who knows how many other such American histories he might have turned into #1 hits.
“The Battle of New Orleans” represents more than just a collaborative creation and a pop culture trend, however—it also validates Driftwood’s initial impulse and illustrates the power of cultural texts to educate. I’m not suggesting that the song’s lyrics can take the place of a history book, although the references to geography, chronology, and Old Hickory are accurate as far as they go (the lines about using an alligator as a substitute cannon, not so much). But more importantly, the song could serve, as so many folk songs do, as a starting point for learning more about the American histories to which it refers—and in this case, those histories are among our nation’s most interesting, cross-cultural, and too often forgotten. Moreover, as a moment featuring the song on the first season of Treme indicates, the song remains a vital part of the history and culture of its unique American city. All good reasons to keep singing the most unexpected #1 hit in Billboard history.
Next #1 hit tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other hits you’d highlight?

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