‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’

By: Stuart J. Fischer, MD

And miss it each night and day

I know I’m not wrong

This feelin’s getting stronger

The longer I stay away

The original version of this hit song, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” goes back to the 1947 movie “New Orleans” with Billie Holliday singing with a small band and Louis Armstrong next to her playing the trumpet—simply iconic.

While the melody captures the mood and tempo of the Crescent City, many popular songs have been written about New Orleans.

“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” also made famous by Armstrong, dates back to 1922 and has been performed by Al Jolson, Freddy Cannon, and Bing Crosby among others. Also in the 1920s, “New Orleans Bump,” a jazz piece, was first played by jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton and more recently recorded by Wynton Marsalis. “Walking to New Orleans” was recorded by another New Orleans native, Fats Domino, in 1960.


The famous statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback commemorates his victory in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.

Courtesy of Stuart J. Fischer, MD

Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” was the Billboard No. 1 song in 1959 and is famous for its closing line:

We fired once more and they began to runnin’

On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Ironically, one of the best-known songs to mention the city, Arlo Guthrie’s 1972 hit “City of New Orleans,” is about a train ride and has little to do with the city at all. It is remembered for its hook:

Good morning America, how are you?

Of course, the Academy doesn’t miss New Orleans for very long. The Annual Meeting has been held in the Crescent City 11 times since 1941. The most recent meetings were in 2003, 2010, and 2014.

Miss the moss-covered vines, the tall sugar pines where mockingbirds used to sing

I’d like to see the lazy Mississippi a hurryin’ in to spring

Once attendees arrive, they are immediately engulfed in the city’s historic nature as it is home to more than 35,000 buildings in the National Register of Historic Places, the highest number in the country.

St. Louis Cathedral, whose three spires overlook Jackson Square, is the oldest continuously operating Catholic cathedral in the United States. It was built in 1727 to honor King Louis IX of France and has been rebuilt twice since that time.

In front of the cathedral is the famous statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback, commemorating his victory in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, had actually been signed in December 1814 but word did not reach New Orleans until February.

The statue of Jackson was erected in 1856 and is the first equestrian statue to have more than one unsupported leg. The famous inscription at the base of the statue, “The Union must and shall be preserved,” has little to do with Jackson. It was placed there in 1862 by Gen. Benjamin Butler after the Union took New Orleans during the American Civil War.

Jackson scored a great victory in New Orleans during the War of 1812, but he wasn’t alone. He had help from pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte.

Jean and his brother, Pierre, ran a smuggling operation in a swampy area outside of New Orleans called Barataria. But when Pierre was arrested by local authorities, Jean chose to aid Jackson in return for a pardon. Eight hundred of Lafitte’s men fought for the American side, and their effort is now commemorated by Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Facing the St. Louis Cathedral to the left is the Cabildo, site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer in 1803 and later the New Orleans City Council and Louisiana Supreme Court. It was at the Cabildo that the Louisiana Supreme Court first heard the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1893, which later became a landmark civil rights case for the U. S. Supreme Court.

The Presbytere, on the other side of the cathedral, is built almost identical to the Cabildo and is now part of the Louisiana State Museum. A permanent exhibition celebrating the Mardi Gras is housed at the Presbytere.

The Pontalba Buildings, built in the 1840s flanking Jackson Square, were among the first buildings in the city to have iron railings.

The Ursuline Convent building dates back to 1752 and houses the oldest continuously operated Catholic school in the United States. It was also the home of Saint Francesca Cabrini, the first American ever to be canonized. According to the National Park Service, “It is one of the few remaining links with the beginnings of the great capital of French Louisiana.”

The ornate structure of the Miltenberger Houses, with a curved façade, floor-to-ceiling windows, wrought iron galleries, and overhanging flower baskets, seemingly appears in just about every guidebook or picture book of New Orleans as an example of French Quarter architecture. The three houses at 900–910 Royal Street, on the corner of Royal and Dumaine, were built by Marie Miltenberger in 1838. She was the widow of Dr. Charles Miltenberger, a surgeon in the War of 1812. Mrs. Miltenberger built three row houses for each of her three sons with adjoining galleries on the second and third floors. Members of the family continued to live in the houses for three generations but the most famous was Mrs. Miltenberger’s granddaughter, Alice Heine.

Mrs. Heine went to Europe and first married the Duke of Richelieu, a descendant of Cardinal Richelieu the famous 17th century first Minister of France. After the duke’s death, she married Prince Albert I of Monaco in 1889. She thus became the first American Princess of Monaco, 67 years before actress Grace Kelly married Price Rainier.

The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air

I dream about magnolias in bloom and I’m wishin’ I was there

Southern magnolia trees are present throughout the Southeast but the southern magnolia has been the state flower of Louisiana since 1900. The trees are evergreens and keep their leaves throughout the year. The white magnolia flower is 8 inches wide with six cup-shaped petals and blooms in the summer and fall.

While the southern magnolia may be the official flower, the Sazerac was voted the official cocktail of New Orleans by the Louisiana House of Representatives in 2008. The Sazerac was first concocted from bitters made by a Creole apothecary named Antoine Amedie Peychaud and combined with Sazerac cognac from France. Over time, the ingredients evolved with rye taking the place of Cognac and Herbsaint replacing absinthe, which was banned in 1912. The drink is famously served at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel.

Absinthe is also part of New Orleans history. The green colored and highly alcoholic spirit—also known as “la fee verte” or “the green fairy” —was thought to have hallucinogenic properties due to an ingredient called thujone. The drink is associated with a New Orleans landmark, the Old Absinthe House at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville. The building dates back to 1807, and according to legend, the second floor was the site where Gen. Jackson met the privateer Lafitte to negotiate for Lafitte’s support in the Battle of New Orleans.

Later on, the Absinthe Frappe, a drink, created by then owner Cayetano Ferrer, became popular in the city.

Way down yonder in New Orleans in the land of the dreamy scenes

There’s a Garden of Eden, you know what I mean…

New Orleans is often called the Crescent City because the original settlement, the Vieux Carre or French Quarter, was built on a sharp curve in the Mississippi River. River life has long dominated the commerce of the city and steamboats still offer river cruises.

New Orleans has also been known as The Big Easy but how that name came into being is not clear. Many attribute the name to a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Betty Guillaud, who used the term “The Big Easy” to contrast the free-wheeling lifestyle to New York’s “Big Apple.” James Conaway, however, said the term was never used until he wrote his 1970 novel “The Big Easy.” He claims that he overheard two men using the phrase on the street outside the courthouse one night while he was working as a police reporter.

New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, commandant general of the Louisiana Colony, then controlled by the French Company of the West as a trading post on the Mississippi River. The city was named for the French Regent Philippe, the Duke of Orleans. In 1821, Adrien de Pauger laid out the grid, six blocks by 13 blocks, that became the French Quarter or Vieux Carre. He named it Bourbon Street in honor of the French royal family.

Everyone hears about cajun cooking but who are the cajuns? Cajuns, or Acadians, are descended from French settlers who lived in Nova Scotia and eastern Canada but were expelled by the British in the mid-18th century during a war between France and Britain. They came to Louisiana to live under a French government. One part of the state, known as Acadiana, consists of 22 parishes with many descendants of cajun settlers.

Creole refers to descendants of Louisianans who were born in the Spanish and French colony before the Louisiana Purchase and mostly live in the area around New Orleans. Over time, Creole culture has grown to include French, Spanish, Caribbean, and African influences. Creole influence is seen in dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya.

There is heaven right here on earth with those beautiful queens

Way down yonder in New Orleans

Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” is an extension of the European Carnival celebrated before the start of Lent, the day before Ash Wednesday and 47 days before Easter. It is called Fat Tuesday because people would fill themselves up on meat and other things they wouldn’t be able to have in the next six weeks.

The idea of Mardi Gras first came to Louisiana when French Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville camped at a spot 60 miles downriver from New Orleans and named the site Point du Mardi Gras because it was Carnival that day back in France.

But the first Mardi Gras in the United States actually took place in Mobile, Ala., in 1703 when Mobile was the capital of the Louisiana Territory. While there were celebrations in New Orleans, the first real Mardi Gras parade in the city didn’t take place until 1837. The modern Mardi Gras is a two-week festival that takes place throughout the city with parades, floats, and performers. The main elements are organized by private groups called “krewes,” many of which have been in existence for more than a hundred years.

Oh Lord I want to be in that number…when the Saints go marching in!

Armstrong made the “Saints” popular with a recording on Decca Records in 1938, but the song started out as one of many gospel hymns with a similar name, most notably a hymn called “When The Saints Are Marching In.” The popular version was first recorded by the Paramount Jubilee Singers in 1923. Many of the lyrics refer to the Biblical Judgment Day and Book of Revelation. The Saints is often played as a jazz funeral dirge with a slow beat on the way to the cemetery and then in an up tempo after burial.

Armstrong, also known as Satchmo or Pops, was born poor in New Orleans and taught himself to play the cornet, an instrument similar to the trumpet. He played with various bands in New Orleans but then was invited to join jazz legend King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago and his career took off from there.

In 1937, he became the first African-American to get a featured billing in a major Hollywood movie, “Pennies From Heaven,” and also the first to guest host a network radio program on CBS.

Even though Armstrong spent most of his professional life living in New York City, his name has been memorialized in his home city with Louis Armstrong Park and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

New Orleans is truly enchanting. While you are here, be sure to take some time outside the meeting to go out and experience what The Big Easy has to offer.

Stuart J. Fischer, MD, is a member of the AAOS Now editorial board.