JOHNNY HORTON – Battle of New Orleans (1981/1990 CBS Select)
I grew up with my father’s cassette of this compilation album, which only had the first eight songs. Each one was a keeper, and we rarely skipped any songs (though side one was stronger than side two). We played that tape every Saturday night in the car, when we were up at the cottage. When it was released on CD in 1990, it was expanded to 12 tracks of Johnny Horton’s greatest hits.
The banjo and marching drums of “The Battle of New Orleans” set the stage for an irresistible tune. I used it myself for a highschool project on the War of 1812. I learned that many Canadian historians do not consider the Battle of New Orleans to have been a part of the War of 1812, since it was a raid that took place after the Treaty of Ghent was signed. When reading American historical accounts of the war, I discovered that they included New Orleans in their books. Why? Because it was one of the few decisive American victories in that war, which is considered by Canucks to have been won by us and the British Empire. Neither here nor there: This song is unforgettable musically and lyrically.
Yeah, they ran through the briars,
And they ran through the brambles,
And they ran through the bushes,
Where a rabbit couldn’t go.
They ran so fast,
That the hounds couldn’t catch ’em,
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
The British retreat enabled the United States to put a happy ending to their part in this war of empires.
The marching drums return for “Sink the Bismarck”, another story of history and victory, this time the Second World War. The Bismarck was the biggest battleship the world had seen yet, and when it sunk the British ship the Hood, the Royal Navy went in pursuit.
We’ll find that German battleship that’s makin’ such a fuss,
We gotta sink the Bismarck ’cause the world depends on us,
Hit the decks a-runnin’ boys and spin those guns around,
When we find the Bismarck we gotta cut her down.
The song is ambiguous about how the ship went down. Filmmaker James Cameron and experts discovered that after a British torpedo (fired from a Swordfish biplane) damaged the ship’s rudder (jamming it and rendering it useless), the Bismarck was scuttled by her own crew.
The Great Sioux War of 1876 is the setting for “Comanche (The Brave Horse)”. Comanche was one of only three American horses to be given a full military funeral. Johnny does the horse proud with a sad but beautiful tune and minimal accompaniment.
Picking up the tempo, “Honky Tonk Man” is purely fun. When I think of country music, it sounds like “Honky Tonk Man”. I remember flipping the tape here as a kid, and hitting play on side two. “North to Alaska” tells of the gold rush with a catchy tune, but not quite as good as to those on side one. “Whispering Pines” is a pretty ballad that we didn’t have patience for as kids, but is a flawless song for grown ups. Marching drums and banjo returns as we visit the Civil War. “Johnny Reb” is a symbol of the south, a controversial subject in 2017, but a good song regardless. Our childhood cassette copy ended with “Rock Island Line”, a fun fast-talkin’ song performed live.
Four more songs included on the CD act like a “third side”, all a little less familiar. “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s 40 Below)” is a actually ballad of love and murder. “All Grown Up” is a rock and roll tune, and unfortunately a skipper. “Sleepy Eyed John” is back to banjos and better for it. “I’m a One Woman Man” is a fine song to end the CD on, upbeat and easy to remember.
There are a few different Johnny Horton hits CDs to choose from, but for nostalgia and quality, Battle of New Orleans is still recommended.