There’s very little accurate history in “The Battle of New Orleans,” despite its frequent appearance in my grade school history classes. But really, there’s not much else to interest kids in the War of 1812. Unlike the radical changes of the American Revolution or the Civil War, the War of 1812 was essentially a quarrel over territory and trade that ended with the U.S. looking pretty much the same as before. The 1815 Battle of New Orleans was one of the few points of interest: a bunch of scrappy, backwoods kids triumphing over the British army in the name of freedom. (Nevermind that the War of 1812 had ended already – news traveled slowly in the pre-telecommunications era.)
It’s this inspirational version of the Battle of New Orleans as the American Revolution, Part II that Johnny Horton sings about here. There’s no allusions to the horrors of war, or even death at all (unless you count that poor alligator who “lost his mind”). There’s not even much animosity toward the “bloody British” at all – this is as clean a war song as you’re going to find, more akin to the thrill of playing soldiers in the backyard than to the reactionary, jingoistic screeds Nashville often produces. Most of the credit here belongs to Horton, whose goodnatured vocals sell some of the cornier passages (“We fired up our squirrel guns and really gave them – well … “) and enliven the rest (the “they ran through the briars” sections in particular). His charm transforms what could have been a didactic novelty song into two and a half minutes of memorable country pop. 7
- “The Battle of New Orleans” was written in 1936 by Jimmie Driftwood, a high school teacher who wrote it to interest his class in the subject.
- Johnny Horton died in a car crash just over a year after “The Battle of New Orleans” topped the chart. His widow was Billie Jean Jones, who had been married to Hank Williams at the time of his 1952 death. In addition, both Horton and Williams played their last shows at the Skyline Club in Austin.
- According to Billboard, this is the top-ranking country song to appear in the first 50 years of the Hot 100.
Hit #1 on June 1, 1959; total of 6 weeks at #1
15 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.56% through the Hot 100