"Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" is a song written and recorded by American country music singer Hank Williams that was first released in July 1952. Named for a Creole and Cajun dish, jambalaya, it spawned numerous cover versions and has since achieved popularity in several different music genres.
With a melody based on the Cajun song "Grand Texas", some sources, including AllMusic, claim that the song was co-written by Williams and Moon Mullican, with Williams credited as sole author and Mullican receiving ongoing royalties. Williams' biographer Colin Escott speculates that it is likely Mullican wrote at least some of the song and Hank's music publisher Fred Rose paid him surreptitiously so that he wouldn't have to split the publishing with Moon's label King Records. Williams' song resembles "Grand Texas" in melody only. "Grand Texas" is a song about a lost love, a woman who left the singer to go with another man to "Big Texas"; "Jambalaya", while maintaining a Cajun theme, is about life, parties and stereotypical food of Cajun cuisine. The narrator leaves to pole a pirogue down the shallow water of the bayou, to attend a party with his girlfriend Yvonne and her family. At the feast they have Cajun cuisine, notably Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo, and drink liquor from fruit jars. Yvonne is his "ma cher amio", which is Cajun French for "my good friend" or more likely to mean "my girlfriend." Technically in Cajun culture "ma cher amio" means my dear, which refers to Yvonne in this song.
Recording and release
Williams recorded the song on June 13, 1952, his first recording session in six months, at Castle Studio in Nashville with backing provided by Jerry Rivers (fiddle), Don Helms (steel guitar), Chet Atkins (lead guitar), Chuck Wright (bass) and probably Ernie Newton (bass). The recording Williams made differs significantly from Mullican's, which was released in the same month as Williams' version but with a different order of verses and extra rhyming couplets.
Since the original melody of the song was from "Grand Texas", the song is a staple of Cajun culture. However, although Williams kept a Louisiana theme, the song is not a true cajun song, and it is precisely because of this that song gained such widespread popularity:
Ethnic music is usually unpalatable for a mass market unless it is diluted in some way (Harry Belafonte's calypsos, Paul Simon's Graceland ... the list is endless). The broader audience related to 'Jambalaya' in a way that it could never relate to a true cajun two-step led by an asthmatic accordian and sung in patois.
Released in July 1952, it reached number one on the U.S. country charts for fourteen non-consecutive weeks. Williams performed "Jambalaya" at the Louisiana Hayride as part of his "homecoming" in fall, 1952 (after being fired from the Grand Ole Opry). A live recording released as part of a series of Hayride performances includes outbursts of applause. Another unreleased version is included in the 2017 CD set, At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight.
After Williams released his version, Cajuns recorded the song again using Cajun instruments. However, they used Williams' lyrics translated into the Cajun French language. "Jambalaya" remains one of Hank Williams' most popular songs today. International, translated or derived versions do exist at least in Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French, Italian, Polish, German, Spanish, and Estonian.
A demo version of Williams singing "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" with just his guitar, likely recorded in 1951, is also available. Williams composed a sequel to the song from the female perspective, "I'm Yvonne (Of the Bayou)", recorded by Goldie Hill. It was not as popular. As with "Jambalaya" there is speculation that Williams may have written this song with Mullican and their friend Jimmy Rule.
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- Moon Mullican, who likely co-wrote the song without credit because contracted to a different label, recorded his version for King Records on July 9, 1952.
- It was recorded by Jo Stafford for Columbia Records on July 20, 1952, reaching #3 on the Billboard pop charts (and making the song well known to people other than country music fans). Record producer Mitch Miller had intended it to be recorded by Jimmy Boyd, but Stafford was chosen when Boyd turned the song down.
- Homer and Jethro recorded it for RCA Victor in 1952.
- Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it at Sun Records for his first album in 1958 and again for his 1969 album Sings the Country Music Hall of Fame Hits, Vol. 1.
- A recording by The Tanner Sisters with an orchestra and conductor Don Carlos was made in London on September 25, 1952. It was released by EMI on the His Master's Voice label as catalog number B 10418.
- Ex-Hong Kong female singer, CHANG Loo (), covered this song twice. The first version was covered in Mandarin Chinese entirely, under title name of in the mid-1950s. The second one was covered, in alternate English and Mandarin Chinese, under the name of Jambalaya/ on her album An Evening with Chang Loo in 1963.
- The song was Brenda Lee's first single in 1956.
- George Jones recorded the song for his 1960 LP George Jones Salutes Hank Williams.
- Kitty Wells recorded it for Decca in 1960.
- Jimmy Boyd recorded it for Dot Records in 1960.
- Fats Domino scored a hit with the song in 1961.
- Drifting Cowboy steel guitarist Don Helms released his own instrumental version in 1962.
- Elvis Presley also cut the song for RCA Victor.
- Gerry and the Pacemakers released a version in 1964.
- Tony Sheridan And The Beat Brothers released a version in 1964.
- Hank Williams' hero Roy Acuff included it on his 1966 LP Sings Hank Williams for the First Time.
- Conway Twitty released it on his 1967 LP Here's Conway Twitty.
- Buddy Williams Australian Country Music singer covered it on his 1968 LP "Buddy Sings Hank"
- In India, Usha Iyer (now Usha Uthup) recorded a version in 1968 on the HMV label, that became the best selling song until then, by an Indian artist in English.
- Hoyt Axton cut it for Capitol in 1971.
- The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's version peaked at #84 in 1972.
- Shocking Blue recorded the song in 1972 for their album Inkpot.
- John Fogerty hit #16 in 1973 under the name of The Blue Ridge Rangers.
- The Carpenters featured the song, in an uptempo MOR version with country flourishes, on their 1973 album Now & Then. Their version was released as a single outside the United States in 1974 and sold well in the UK (peaking at number 12 in the charts) and Japan.
- Professor Longhair released his version of the song in 1974 on his album Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo, with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown on guitar and fiddle.
- In 1974, Singapore-based female singer, Ervinna, covered this song, on her LP album Top Hits Vol. 2 with the local White Cloud Records.
- The Meters recorded the song on their 1975 LP Fire on the Bayou.
- Emmylou Harris included it in her 1975 album Elite Hotel
- Teresa Teng performed the song live in Japan in 1976.
- In 1978, Hong Kong singer Paula Tsui () covered the Mandarin Chinese version made by CHANG Loo on her LP album ?.
- Lucinda Williams included the composition on her 1979 debut Ramblin'.
- Andy Kaufman performed the song on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983.
- Moe Bandy recorded the song for his 1983 tribute Sings the Songs of Hank Williams
- The Residents covered the song for their 1986 album Stars & Hank Forever.
- Hank's daughter Jett Williams recorded the song in 1996.
- Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis on their 2000 album You Win Again
- In 2005, two versions of "Jambalaya" surged in Mexican folk music, one by Banda Limón and the other from the Duranguense group K-Paz de la Sierra. However, in Mexican music, the most famous cover version is by Los Felinos (1976).
- For his 2007 album Oh, My NOLA, Harry Connick, Jr. recorded the song in a big band arrangement. "Jambalaya" was one of many well-known songs on the album associated with New Orleans (where Connick was born and raised) and Louisiana.
- Jeff Healey on his 2008 album Mess of Blues
- Lacy J. Dalton released it on her 2010 LP Here's to Hank.
- Country star Hunter Hayes made his debut, at the age of four years, covering the song on the accordion with Hank Williams, Jr.
- Garth Brooks recorded the song for the 2013 Country Classics album in the Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences compilation.
- In 2016, a version recorded by The Plainsmen was used as the opening theme for Tig Notaro's show One Mississippi.