Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Jambalaya”


Here’s a simple song that is one of the most often played from our Yellow Book—“Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” 

For being easy to play (only two chords!) and sing, this song carries an interesting backstory.   Basically, it is a song written and recorded by the great country music singer Hank Williams.  It was first released in 1952—a year before his untimely death at the age of 29.  It was named for the Creole/Cajun dish by the same name—Jambalaya.

And, of course, Crawfish Pie,

And, File Gumbo,

It tells the pretty story of a young man p0ling his pirogue to a Louisiana Bayou to meet up with the family of his girlfriend Yvonne. 

Needless to say, this happy tune spawned many, many cover versions over the years.  Here’s the original:

Hank Williams:

The melody was based on an older Cajun song, “Grand Texas,” that didn’t have a thing to do with food. 

Rather, it told the sad story about a lost love, a woman who left the singer to go with another man to the great big state of Texas.  It’s still a popular Cajun dance tune and the similarities with Williams’s song are easy to hear.  

“Grand Texas:”

Williams’s version, however, is much more “country than Cajun.”  He understood that his broader audience would probably not relate to a true Cajun two-step led by an asthmatic accordion with lyrics in 17th century French-Canadian patois! 

Anyway—just to be impartial—here’s a real Cajun version of “Jambalaya.”  Sorry, no ukuleles:

Cajun “Jambalaya:”

“Jambalaya” was most likely co-written with a hillbilly piano player, one Moon Mullican, with Williams’s better-known name on the sheet music and record labels. 

This was typical of the handshake deals and royalty arrangements common in those days.  Mullican’s honky-tonk piano style was said to be rambunctious enough to “knock the beer bottles off the bar.”  Hang on to your bottle and take a listen:

Moon Mullican:

Williams (probably again with Mullican) composed a sequel to the song from the female perspective, “I’m Yvonne (Of the Bayou)”, recorded by country singer Goldie Hill—never as popular as the earlier “Jambalaya.”  But, as a musicological footnote, here it is:

Goldie Hill:

So, we have a good example here of mid-20th century “cultural appropriation” that has given us a country, if not truly Cajun, classic—and an excuse to try some tasty Louisiana cuisine and, of course, moonshine in a jar!

Shtay, hic, twooned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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