The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Johnny Horton spent some time as a rockabilly singer before finding a home in country music, but the biggest single of 1959 — like the biggest single of 1958 before it — had nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll. Instead, it was a novelty march, one that did its best to transform the horrors of war into a fun, silly romp.
Jimmy Driftwood, the man who wrote “The Battle Of New Orleans,” was an Arkansas high school principal who sometimes wrote songs to help get his students excited to learn about history. Driftwood eventually wrote thousands of songs, and a number of different singers recorded their own versions of “The Battle Of New Orleans,” a song about an 1814 encounter between General Andrew Jackson’s American troops and a much larger British naval force. That might’ve been a great American victory, but I’m willing to guess that it wasn’t the good time that Driftwood depicted. You can totally tell it’s the work of a high school educator, right down to the moment when the lyrics fake out on saying the word “hell.”
The version of the song that hit was from Johnny Horton, a Los Angeles native who’d been a collegiate basketball player and a gold prospector in Alaska before falling into a musical career. Horton eventually married Billie Jean Jones, Hank Williams’ widow. And a year after he hit #1 with “The Battle Of New Orleans,” Horton died in a car accident after playing a show at Austin’s Skyline Club — the same venue that Williams had played before he died.
Given Horton’s young and tragic death, I suppose it’s nice to hear that he clearly had a good time singing on his biggest hit. But “The Battle Of New Orleans” really isn’t much of a song. It’s a pure novelty, with its snare drums and its hut-two-three-four chanting. A banjo plays “Dixie,” and the lyrics laud Andrew Jackson, two decisions that haven’t aged especially well. But nothing about “The Battle Of New Orleans” was built to last. It’s a big joke, one that displays a distinctly pre-Vietnam sense of American military swagger: “We fired our cannon till the barrel melted down / Then we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.” As a country, we’d spend the next decade learning lessons that a high school principal isn’t equipped to teach.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cornershop’s cover of “The Battle Of New Orleans,” a bonus track from the 2009 album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast: