The Gator Lost His Mind: The Historical Ballads of Johnny Horton

by Casey N. Cep

I’ve been meaning to write about Johnny Horton. He sang some of the best ballads on country radio in the fifties. There was one called “Comanche” about a horse who happened to be one of only survivors from General Custer’s regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Another one, called “Sink the Bismarck,” was about the Nazi battleship that terrorized Allied ships until it was finally sunk by the British. I also really liked “North to Alaska,” about the gold rush. But the Johnny Horton saga song that my sisters and I could never stop signing was “Battle of New Orleans.” I don’t remember when my father first played it for us, but for years — well, for decades now — we’ve all three loved it.

“Hut-two,” one of us would whisper in the back seat of the Blazer or the front seat of my father’s Silverado, and the other two would shout back, “Three-four!” My poor mother knew exactly what this nonsense meant, and she’d look away or sometimes even crack a smile as the rest of us launched into the song. My father would take the lead, “Iiiiiiiiiiin 1814,” and then we were off to the races, or our own version of the races down the “mighty Mississipp” with Ol’ Hickory.

I made the mistake once of trying out this routine in a high-school class, but only one other person knew the wonders of Johnny Horton and the words to this song: our history teacher. He and I sang the whole thing, while those other philistines listened and laughed. You’d think that would have taught me about the refined tastes required for appreciating the masterworks of Johnny Horton, but it didn’t. A few years later, I tried to sing the song again in public, only this time I was living in England and I thought Horton’s patriotic ditty might make for a funny pub night. Unfortunately, “the bloody British” did not appreciate the ballad’s brilliance. But here I am again, trying to convince the world of the genius of Johnny Horton.

Today’s as good a day as any: January 8th, 1815 is when the battle of New Orleans ended. The war itself had technically ended in December of 1814, when a peace treaty was signed in Ghent, but word of that peace didn’t reach America for a few more weeks, so British and American troops continued fighting on the Gulf Coast well into February. The victory at New Orleans didn’t win the war, but it did win the peace, at least for Andrew Jackson, whose military triumphs would carry him to the White House thirteen years later. “The 8th of January” became as famous a date as the Fourth of July, inspiring cartoons and songs, including the fiddle tune that’s the spine of Johnny Horton’s ballad.

Horton didn’t write “Battle of New Orleans,” but he did take it to the top of the charts in 1959. It was an unlikely hit: it celebrated an American win, but a win almost a hundred and fifty years earlier. Imagine if a song about the Battle of Gettysburg suddenly topped the charts today. The song even won Johnny Horton a Grammy a year later, the height of a craze when Americans preferred their history in sing-songy, fear-defying, rally-crying ballads.

There’s some plucky banjo picking and drum beating at the song’s start, but lyrically it gets right down to business: “In 1814, we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.” Those bloody Brits arrive only a few seconds later: “We fired our guns and the British kept-a-comin’.” A minute later, and Horton is screeching about how those red coats kept “runnin’ on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

The whites of their eyes order might have originated at Bunker Hill, but Horton has Old Hickory telling his troops they “could take ’em by surprise if we didn’t fire our muskets ’til we looked ’em in the eye.” The song’s a hoot, with men running through briars and brambles and bushes until the Americans melt the barrel of their cannon from overuse. Ever resourceful, they grab an alligator: “We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind,” only “when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind.” Cruelty in practice, but comedy in song: That poor gator lost his mind a few thousand times before my childhood self realized what damage such improvisation would cause if it were actually possible to turn an alligator into a cannon.

Anyhow, I loved this song as a kid. “Hup-one,” “hup-two,” I couldn’t stop singing it, and neither could my sisters. Hokey or not, we just loved it. I think we even wore out my father’s cassette tape listening to it so much. I’m sure he got sick of it, but he’s never once refused to sing along.

Country Time is an occasional column about country music.