Other than the colors of Carnival, there’s only one official item in all of Mardi Gras. Since Rex adopted it in 1872, “If Ever I Cease to Love” has been considered the anthem of the entire celebration.

Nearly a century and a half later, the whimsical song continues to accompany the entrance and procession of the King and Queen of Carnival at the Rex ball and is played countless times at dozens of other Carnival balls.

So where did the song come from and how did it become popular in New Orleans? George Leybourne, who also composed “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” wrote the tune in 1871. Sheet music for it first appeared in London that same year. British songstress Lydia Thompson brought “If Ever” with her for her American tour in 1871.

Stephen Hales, in "Rex, An Illustrated History of the School of Design," writes: “The first Rex parade was organized, in part, to celebrate the visit to New Orleans of Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis. During his American tour, the Grand Duke would have heard, and apparently came to enjoy, a catchy and very popular song, ‘If Ever I Cease to Love.’ Lydia Thompson … who sang the song in her review, was performing in New Orleans at the time of the Grand Duke’s visit.”

Legends that there was a romance between Alexis and Lydia — and that he rearranged his itinerary to follow her to New Orleans — are not true. But bands were requested to perform the duke’s new favorite tune in the King of Carnival’s inaugural parade.

In the New Orleans Times three days before the first appearance of Rex, a notice appeared headed simply “The Anthem.” The brief paragraph read: “His Royal Highness, King of Carnival, requests us to notify all organizations provided with their own music that while passing in review before His Majesty, each band is expected to play the Royal anthem of the most puissant House of Carnival. Said anthem being familiar to modern ears under the title of 'If Ever I Cease to Love.' ”

Some locals adapted the lyrics to include the stanza, “May the Grand Duke Alexis/ride a buffalo in Texas/If ever I cease to love.” Through the years many versions of the song have been published in sheet music form, including one copyrighted by Werlein’s in 1946, and another created for the LSU Marching Band.

The Original Zenith Brass Band did the first recording of “If Ever” in 1946 on the Circle label, but the classic rendition remains one recorded in 1954 by Johnny Wiggs and his New Orleans Kings. The recording includes Dr. Edmund Souchon’s gravel-voiced vocal. The durability of this version is evidenced by the fact that it appeared first as a 78, then a 45, then an LP and now on CD on the legendary Mardi Gras Parade Music from New Orleans on the George Buck label.

Rex has twice used the song in conjunction with krewe favors. In 1959, a musical cigarette lighter played the tune. In 1964, a 45-rpm EP album featured four versions of the song, produced by society orchestra leader Rene Louapre.

Email Arthur Hardy at mardihardy@gmail.com

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Original Lyrics

IF EVER I CEASE TO LOVE

In a house, in a square, in a quadrant

In a street, in a lane, in a road

Turn to the left on the right hand

You see there my true love’s abode

I go there a-courting

And cooing my love like a dove

And swearing on my bended knee

If ever I cease to love

If ever I cease to love

May sheepheads grow on apple trees

If ever I cease to love

May fish get legs and cows lay eggs

If ever I cease to love

May dogs wag their tails in front

If ever I cease to love

May we all turn into cats and dogs

If ever I cease to love