(Lyrics available here...as if you needed them!)
This version is by two of the most New Orleans-ian of New Orleans artists: Dirty Dozen Brass Band with a guest appearance by Trombone Shorty. The video is a bit sea-sickness-inducing, but the audio isn't bad, and the band is phenomenal under any conditions.
As a kid, I picked up on unspoken levels of discomfort whenever this song was brought up in my rural, white, evangelical church or around my family. On one hand, this song expresses the same sentiment as "I'll Fly Away" does:
O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.
As a Southern Baptist kid, I noticed that two lines of questions would lead to uncomfortable conversations: "What exactly are 'saints' supposed to be?" and "This song is so exciting; why don't we sing it more often?"
According to what I was taught by adults in my Southern Baptist church, "Saints" refers to anyone who has accepted Jesus as their savior. It's just a word for those who are Saved in the Baptist sense of the word. What I didn't learn until years later was that the catholic churches had developed their own mythology around the idea of "saints" which Baptists considered to be non-Biblical, and therefore, evil.
(As an atheist, whenever I run across the stories about these Catholic saints, I marvel at what horrible people they were, and at the way their horribleness was turned into mythology... but that's fodder for another series of posts.)
In high school, I began dating a girl who was Catholic, and I got to learn all over again from my church how Baptists are supposed to feel about Catholics - while at the same time I had my girlfriend as a resource for sorting out Baptist myth from Catholic reality. Baptists told me that Catholics prayed to dead people; my girlfriend explained about the Catholic concept of "intercessory prayer." Baptists told me that Catholic "saints" were not usually Saved, and therefore were actually un-redeemed and not truly Christian - which meant they were, in fact, following Satan. My girlfriend balked at that twisted logic coming from people who reject orthodoxy.
And yes, there were Bible verses about false prophets produced as "clobber texts" on both sides, which were meant to prove that one side or the other was Right(eous), but only served to confuse the issue. Looking back at all of this controversy as an atheist, I recognize that I was stuck in an impossible position between groups that were in violent disagreement over bullshit.
Each side believed they were right, and by maintaining their disagreement, they were making themselves part of a tradition that dated back to the First Century, and a schism that developed between the earliest Christians; a schism between those who believe in orthodoxy, and those who believe in personal revelation. In other words, it was the religious equivalent of arguing over the superiority of Star Wars vs. Star Trek - and no one wins an argument like that.
As to my other question - "Why don't we sing this exciting song more often?" - that turns out to have a very simple explanation that no one wants to admit out loud: Race.
The very similar song, "I'll Fly Away," was written by a man named Albert E. Brumley in 1929. It was one of those songs recorded by dozens of groups and performed frequently on the AM radio stations which grew up across the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In contrast, "When the Saints..." was not credited to a composer; instead, it was included in our Baptist Hymnals as a Negro spiritual.
Of course, as written, there is nothing in the text of "When the Saints..." that is overtly controversial. "When the sun refuse to shine/I want to be in that number" and "When they crown Him Lord of all/I want to be in that number" are essentially the other two verses of the song. The implicit core desire expressed by the lyrics are a yearning to be included. I think that was the source of discomfort that no one wanted to discuss, because the origin of the Southern Baptists is rooted firmly in exclusion. They split from their Northern brothers before the Civil War in a disagreement over whether black pastors could be ordained as missionaries.
Growing up in a post-Civil Rights era version of the Southern Baptist church, I was surrounded by adults who had not yet figured out where their traditional beliefs fit in America's new political reality. And hearing "When the Saints Go Marching In" apparently reminded them, even if it was on a remote, subconscious level, that they belonged to a community built on excluding fellow saints... saints who wanted nothing more than to be included in that number.
By their nature, Baptists occupy an uncomfortable eschatology. (They try to believe literally in what the most allegorical of books says about the End of Times; so that leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance.) The core of their belief system is inherently prone to heresy, which they can't combat, because they consider personal revelation and conscience to be the basis of spiritual salvation. That means that their own core beliefs don't allow for an "authority" in the church to determine who is or is not a "real, true Christian." They do claim to follow the literal, inerrant text of the Bible, but as I pointed out above, that doesn't allow them to authoritatively resolve even the most central and basic arguments stemming back to the earliest Christian churches. And that means that they have no foundational, scriptural basis for excluding anyone who claims to have come to their faith through personal revelation.
In other words, anyone who says they are a saint, is a saint. That causes a problem for Baptists who don't want to count someone as a saint. Rather than deal with the discomfort of including people they have long worked to exclude, they have a history of projecting their discomfort on the music itself.
"When the Saints..." is a very deeply black song. Being a negro spiritual, it was forged in a community of oral history by people who were being deprived of inclusion in humanity itself. As simple as the text is, it speaks very powerfully of people who want a promise fulfilled - the promise that if they work hard and follow the rules, they will someday be free. It's morbid to consider now how many of them only had death to look forward to. And whether white evangelicals want to admit it or not, this song is a painful reminder of their historic role in maintaining the system that put those people into that forge.
Sadly, I've seen how the discomfort from that painful reminder gets transformed into a reason to continue to exclude. They don't want to be called racists... but they can't seem to square inclusion with the things they do and teach.
White evangelical culture has a long history of demonizing black culture - and pretending that this has nothing to do with race. Consider the example of Sketch Erickson, as the Slacktivist describes here. Then watch that Dirty Dozen/Trombone Shorty performance again, and connect the cultural dots. I think now that the awkward relationship my church family had with this particular song had a lot to do with where they drew their personal line between what is divine and what is not.
And demonizing is what Halloween is all about, isn't it?
This was always the most uncomfortable time of year for my church community. On one hand, you have the unavoidable historic fact that All Hallows' Eve is a Christian feast day... for the wrong kinds of Christians. On the other hand, you have the celebration of evil spirits being glorified in the secular culture, especially when it uses that historically black music.
As modern Americans, we weren't supposed to believe in evil spirits anymore, which always added to the confusion. (I'm still confused by the logic that Christians use that, "There are real witches ... real because they believe in magic, even though I don't, because magic isn't real.")
So our churches would attempt to reclaim the holiday by refusing to have Halloween celebrations, and instead have Harvest Night, or some similarly innocuous sounding alternative... which accidentally imitated the pagan festivals they were trying to distance themselves from in the first place.
As an atheist adult, I look at this holiday with a mix of amusement and pity. I feel bad for the people who work themselves into a frenzy over the "Satanic" nature of the holiday - which seems pointless, considering there is no Satan. And I feel some sense of schadenfreude that the people who are most worked up over the whole thing are battling demons of their own making.
But mostly, I feel like dwelling on the afterlife is a huge waste of time and energy - especially if we can't swallow our pride and address the schisms that we've created for ourselves out of all of these misinterpreted myths.