When the saints go marching in

When I was young, I went to a summer-camp-type-thing for those interested in high school debate. I think that my parents were trying to find some way to make lemonade out of the fact that I argued all the time. When I was there, I met a girl from New Orleans. She was one of the first people I liked as a person, without reservation; she had what a hippie would call good energy, and was skinny and mile-a-minute, and said funny things that were rarely (but sometimes excellently) mean. She was a die-hard Saints fan who, at the time, wore her suffering as a badge. Those weren't the worst Saints teams, not by a long stretch--they were the .500 or so Bum Phillips squads, post-Chuck Muncie and Archie Manning--but I was from Miami, and the Dolphins were riding high with the Killer Bs and Dan Marino. I listened to her stories about her team with a mix of pity and fascination. It was the first time I saw fandom as a form of faith rather than a method for receiving a regularly scheduled reward. We've kept in touch faintly over the years, and when the clock ran out last night on Super Bowl XLV, she was the first person I emailed. She was over the moon and, I hope, stays there for a while.

Even when the Saints were unlucky, they were lucky, in that they had the best music. "When the Saints Go Marching In" was already a pre-jazz spiritual standard before Louis Armstrong got to it in the thirties, before Fats Domino got to it in the fifties, before Barbecue Bob and Professor Longhair and Bo Diddley and Dr. John and Blind Willie Davis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Precious Bryant and Aaron Neville got to it along the way. It's a song everyone knows and understands; it's about salvation and jubilation and absorbing the bad as part of a larger good. It fit the team when the team was unfit, and it fits them now. To celebrate yesterday's victory, I have picked one of the strangest versions: James Brown's proto-disco reading, from Hell in 1974 (coincidentally, those mid-seventies years, where John North was lucky to get five wins out of his team, were pretty hellish). There's blaxploitation guitar. There's an insistent shaker on the left side of the mix. Plus so much more: the showboating, the shouting, the for-rent female backup vocals, and the laughable lyric alterations ("Get on the Jesus crusade!"). If Drew Brees' performance was precise and perfect, this is baggy-pants and often wrong. But it's no less compelling. Congratulations, New Orleans, and congratulations, fourteen-year-old debate girl who loves the Saints to distraction.