Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: Johnny Horton is one of my favorite singers. Like Buddy Holly and a few others, he too was killed just when his career peaked.

I know he didn't become a superstar until he started recording songs based on actual events in history, beginning with “The Battle of New Orleans.” He followed that with “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska,” two more million-sellers with historic themes.

I heard they didn't release “The Battle of New Orleans” in the UK because the Brits wouldn't be too crazy about a song calling attention to a battle in which they were quickly defeated.

Instead, Columbia had Johnny record a completely different version sung from the British point of view. This track supposedly gives the Brits the upper hand, and has the Americans on the run.

Having never heard this take, can you explain how they rewrote history?

Did it then become a hit in Britain?
—Larry Vanover, Elgin, Ill.

DEAR LARRY: Strange but true! Johnny did indeed record an alternative “Battle of New Orleans,” sung as if by a British soldier. To his credit, Johnny didn't fake an English accent.

This is an entirely different take; however, we cannot describe it as “completely different.”

Most of the lyrics are unchanged, the key exceptions being as follows:

Instead of “In 1814 we took a little trip, along with Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississip,” we hear “along with Col. Pakenham up the Mississip.”

Edward Pakenham actually held the rank of Major General but those words do not fit the cadence of the line. Thus he gets a two-pay-grade demotion.

Replacing “we met the bloody British” is “we met the bloomin' Rebels.”

In the chorus, references to the British and the Rebels are switched:

“We fired our guns and the Rebels kept a-comin. There wasn't nigh as many as there was awhile ago. We fired once more and they began to runnin,' on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico”.

Otherwise the lyrics are changed only when necessary, such as swapping first and third person pronouns (we, they, us, etc.) and directions (up or down the river) when appropriate.

Consistent with both versions is the mind-blowing gator-cannon: “They fired their cannon till the barrel melted down, then they grabbed an alligator and they fought another round. They filled his head with cannonballs and powdered his behind, and when they touched the powder off the gator lost his mind.”

The 2000 Columbia CD, "The Spectacular Johnny Horton” (074646105429) is inexpensive and easy to find, and it contains both versions of “The Battle of New Orleans.”

Though the event is logged in history as the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans did not begin until January 8, 1815.

Sadly, this battle so often sang about need not have begun.

Both sides signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, but without any form of speedy communication the armies in New Orleans did not learn of the armistice until after the British had been vanquished.

Many recordings of “The Battle of New Orleans” exist, including one by England's own pop star Lonnie Donegan, but none made the NME Top 30.

DEAR JERRY: I don't recall the product, which doesn't matter, but a current TV commercial uses a song that I hope you can identify.

By a woman, the line I clearly recall is “Just picture you without me and me without you.”

I would love to buy it but don't know where to begin.
—Clarice Kendall, Huntsville, Ala.

DEAR CLARICE: Let's begin with the title and artist. It is “Picture Me Without You,” by the always wonderful Mildred Bailey (Brunswick 7732), who we have written much about in the past.

This 1936 single is actually credited to Mildred's husband, Red Norvo and His Orchestra.

Since you may not want the original 78 (Brunswick 7732), you can easily get this track on different CDs, including “Red Norvo: Best of Big Bands, Featuring Mildred Bailey” (Legacy 074645342429).

I only heard this ad once and, like you, do not recall the sponsor. Good thing it doesn't matter.

IZ ZAT SO? Johnny Horton carved himself a very unique niche with many tunes inspired by real people or events.

Besides the three mentioned above, Horton put to music the stories of: “The Battle of Bull Run;” “Young Abe Lincoln (Make a Tall, Tall Man);” and “Johnny Reb” (Civil War); “Comanche (The Brave Horse)” and “Jim Bridger” (Battle of Little Big Horn); “Johnny Freedom (Freedomland)” and “John Paul Jones” (American Revolution); “Sinking of the Reuben James” (World War 2); “Sam Magee” (Klondike Gold Discovery); “Snow-Shoe Thompson” (Legendary U.S. Mail carrier); and “O'Leary's Cow” (Great Chicago Fire).

At just 35, Johnny Horton died November 5, 1960 from injuries received in an automobile crash — the innocent victim of a drunk driver.

Johnny's hit at the time of his death, “North to Alaska,” made the Pop-Rock Top 5 and No. 1 on the C&W charts.

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