Who Dat: Da History

01:00 January 01, 1970

You hear it on the street, an impromptu call and response between strangers in black and gold jerseys. You hear it at the water cooler, at the neighborhood bar, on the local news. We all say it, maybe even a few times a day, but more often than not, we have no idea where “ Who day say gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?” actually comes from in the first place. And if two words are going to have such a unifying impact on an entire city, an entire “Who dat?” nation, we owe it to ourselves to know why.

The earliest cultural references to the use of “Who dat?” hark from the vaudeville acts and the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of he most well-known is the tune, “ Who Day Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?” (1898), with lyrics from Paul Paurence Dunbar for the widely successful playlet Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake-Walk, a prominent feature of E.E. Rice’s “Summer Nights” at the Casino Roof Garden in New York City. According to Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s Ragged But Right: Black Travelling Shows, Coon Songs and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (2007), the act was so successful that it remained on the venue’s bill for most of that summer – a landmark in turn-of-the-century black entertainment. The chorus of the tune sings, “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd? / Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud / Blame de lan’ let white folks rule it / I’se a lookin fu’a pullet, / Who dat say a chicken in dis crowd.”

Another popular minstrel theme to feature our city’s trademarek phrase was, “Who’s Dat Knockin’ At De Door?” “I hab just come down on a little bit ob spree, / And I’m berry well acquainted wid de gals I come to see, /  I went to de house. But dey was all gone to bed, / And out of the winder a colour’d lady said, / ‘Who is dat knockin’ at de door?” This context was common of the earliest cultural and social uses of the “Who dat?” tagline. Many acts would feature frightened black actors encountering a ghost, or someone imitating one, to which the actor would reply, “Who dat?” (Eventually ghosts themselves would be referred to as the “who dats”). In these acts, often a gag skit would arise from one actors saying to another, “Who dat?” to which the other would reply, “Who dat say who dat?” to which the first would reply, “Who dat say who day when I say who dat?” and so on. It is said that even the Marx Brothers used a “Who dat?”  routine.

With the 1920s and 30s came an eruption of jazz and swing groups, which were noted for their crowed interactions beyond providing upbeat, danceable music. These interactions generally took the form of call and response, sometimes breaking into scatting and other improvised syllabic vocal interludes. The “Who dat?” chant became a popular fixture at these shows and could be heard tossed between the band and its leader or the band and its audience until the entire hall was filled with “Who dat?”s, a tradition still upheld in bars, homes and of course, the Dome to this day.

Though I have not yer found an outside source to confirm this,  it is widely rumored that in World War II, the “Who dat?” chant became a popular joke among soldiers, specifically US fighter squadron pilots. After Long bouts of silence on the radio waves, static and crackles of a microphone prompted a far-off voice to inquire, “Who dat?” A response would soon come from another pilot, “Who dat say who dat?”, a jovial homage to the old vaudeville and minstrelsy catchphase. Yet another pilot would reply, “Who dat say who dat say who day?” and so one until a commanding officer would eventually intervene.

The evolution of “Who Dat?” from a tagline culturally immersed in vaudeville, music and comedy to a renowned chant of solidarity among sports fans is heavily debated, but has been referenced as early as the late 1960s. One claim is that Southern University fans in the late 60s or early 70s would be heard cheering, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Jags?” for Southern University’s Jaguars. Another claim the same time at St. Augustine High School, from where it spread to other local public schools.

And yet another claim has the chant originating at Patterson High School in Patterson, Louisiana, home of the Saints Pro-Bowler running back Dalton Hilliard (1986-1993 seasons).  Under the leadership of former head coach Jack Andre, Hilliard and the rest of the Patterson football team made it all the way to the state championship against John Curtis in 1979. They were the runner-up in that 28-0 game, but the story goes that Patterson fans brought their “Who dat say gonna beat dem Jacks?” cheer for the Patterson Lumberjacks to the Dome that game. Hilliard became something of a local legend, and the cheer followed him to LSU the next year, and then to the NFL where he spent his entire career with the Saints. The story would have the cheer originating with the Saints in 1986.

However, by 1983, during the tenure of coach Bum Philips (1981-1985), the Saints organization, and fans, had already adopted the cheer. The ‘Aints had won five of their first eight games and were off to an unprecedented start that season. When it came time to play an away game against division rivals the Falcons (aka the Dirty Birds), Saints fans traveled to Atlanta and heated the crowd with some of thw first official Saints “Who dat?!” chants, as reported by the Associated Press.

Around this same time, Cincinnati Bengals fans had started using their “Who Dey” cheer, and so the epic battle of “Who dat came first?” began. In 1981, while following their team’s run for the Super Bowl, Bengals fans would cheer, “Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?” and other fans would reply, “Nobody!” The origin of their cheer is widely disputed as well, including a local car commercial and a local Cincinnati beer Hudepohl, locally referred to as “Hudy,” which was on sale everywhere at Bengals games. All that considered, it’s still pretty safe to say that there’s no way “dey” and “dat,” common and originated in Cincinnati of all places, whether Bengals fans were reported using the chant before Saints fans or not.

In 2006, former Saints quarterback and current WWL sports commentator Bobby Herbert furthered the “Who dat?” legacy after a highly anticipated game between the Saints and the favored Dallas Cowboys. After the Saints easily burned the Cowboys, listeners across the nation many of whom were still displaced from the Huricane Katrina aftermath and could hear the WWL airwaves far and wide that evening, called in to Herbert’s radio show. Herbert’s response? “Man, there’s a whole Who Dat Nations out there.” Thys, Herbert became the unofficial father of the Who Dat Nation. Since then, the team has become widely popular, its members now often refered to as “who dats” themselves. It is also commonly heard in Saints anthems by local artists, which abounded after this tremendous season.

And with that, the who dat evolution became the who dat revolution. Throughout the shocking and explosive 2009 season and ever since, the chant has become a part of our daily bread, a substitute for greetings on the street, a cure for awkward silences and the easiest way to get an entire room of diverse people to all agree on the same thing.  

People of all ages, genders, colors, and creeds are members of the Who Dat Nation, and our boys have been a powerful uniting force for the local community in this time of economic, political, and social unrest.

And we have the “Who dat?” chant, with a history as rich as our own, to help fan the fires within and inspire our Saints to give us the best season in franchise history.

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