Pop and circumstance
Although campaign songs have slipped from the perch they once occupied among the media, they were a ubiquitous part of the American political soundscape for more than a century. Every four years from the 1840s through the 1950s, and even a bit beyond, presidential candidates armed voters with a deluge of songs supporting their candidacy or attacking the policies and personalities of their rivals. This week, Pasatiempo revisits a few highlights — and low points — in the pugnacious history of presidential serenading, and we get acquainted with a songwriter who is trying to keep the tradition alive in the campaign of 2016. To listen to some entertaining examples of vintage political songs, head to sfnm.co/jingls. On the cover is a photo illustration based on sheet music for Ruth Roberts and William Katz’s 1959 “The President Song.”
IN a time long ago, the train chugged through the station festooned with bunting of red, white, and blue and the candidate emerged onto the caboose as the town band and the barbershop quartet offered a rousing rendition of “We Want Teddy for Four Years More,” “Get on the Raft With Taft,” or “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” The glory days of campaign songs are sadly behind us, but for more than a century they were a ubiquitous part of America’s sonic landscape. Even more than other popular songs, they were destined for rapid obsolescence, their shelf life essentially expiring as the votes were counted. And yet, revisiting these obscure and ephemeral documents can transport us to old-time political passions in both style and substance. Political songs played a role right back to our nation’s beginnings, with some tunes growing particularly attached to the office of the president. The most famous example is “Hail to the Chief,” which moved from its origins in Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake (where its words praise the Scottish folk hero Roderick Dhu) to become the ubiquitous processional for American heads of state. Its musical setting was released by several American publishers in 1812 or shortly thereafter. Under the title “Wreaths for the Chieftain” it was
played in an 1815 ceremony memorializing George Washington, and it was first heard at a presidential inauguration in 1837, when Martin Van Buren was sworn in.
Campaign songs were not numerous during those early years. They invariably consisted of new lyrics crafted to old tunes, often printed in partisan newspapers, and they could pack a punch. The campaign of 1828, for example, was a rematch of the election of four years earlier, when no candidate received a majority of the votes from the Electoral College and the decision therefore went to the House of Representatives; led by Speaker Henry Clay, the congressmen chose John Quincy Adams over his rival Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory,” who had received the most popular votes). In the ensuing race, Jackson would best Adams, buoyed by such ditties as this, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”:
Though Adams now misrules the land, And strives t’oppress the free, He soon must yield his high command Unto “Old Hickory.” …
And though Corruption’s baleful voice Did formerly prevail — Once more he’ll be the people’s choice Though demagogues assail.
Not until the boisterous contest of 1840 did campaign songs really come into their own. Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, was the reigning chief executive, much criticized for what were perceived as aristocratic ways. The upstart Whig candidate William Henry Harrison took him on. Nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” after a battle he had won when fighting Native Americans in the Indiana Territory, Harrison designed what is widely viewed as the first “modern” presidential campaign, one that was buoyed by the consistent use of slogans and songs. His minions crafted their marketing as a defense against an editorial in the Baltimore
Republican that had recommended this recipe for silencing Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin ...” Harrison supporters embraced these images as marks of pride. Suddenly the nation was awash in giveaways like pins, medals, and handkerchiefs emblazoned with log cabins, cider jugs, and the name Tippecanoe. Songbooks (or “songsters”) sprouted like mushrooms after a shower — Blake’s Log Cabin Music, The Tippecanoe Song Book, Log Cabin and Hard Cider Melodies, among many others — spreading enthusiasm by gathering tunes and lyrics into published paperback collections. The most famous song of the campaign was “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” In retrospect, it was fitting that Vice President John Tyler got some notice that way, since he took over when “Old Tippecanoe” died exactly a month after assuming office. Most of these songster tunes are minor masterpieces at best, such as this one, sung to the melody “Rosin the Beau”:
You can’t make a song to Van Buren Because his long name will not do; There’s nothing about him allurin’, As there is about Tippecanoe!
Nonetheless, they set the tone for the future. In the preface to A
Republican Campaign Songster, for 1860, we read: “For twenty years past, in each of our quadrennial elections, the SONG has been recognized as a legitimate political power, scarcely secondary in its influence to that of the SPEECH itself, giving an impulse and a glow to masses of men, and relieving the tedium almost necessarily consequent upon protracted attention to the orator, however cogent his argument, or however polished his rhetoric. All parties invoke its aid, though many of their wise men sneer at it as trivial, and beneath the intelligence of the age. This is their
mistake. Because it is just on the level of that intelligence, it is not trivial. … He who has witnessed the effect of ten thousand voices, united in the chorus of a political song, adapted to some popular air, will never, thenceforth, call it trivial.”
Paperback songsters would continue to be published and distributed for decades, well into the 20th century, but songs increasingly began to appear as standalone sheet music, often with portraits of the candidates lithographed on the cover. A few such independent pieces had appeared prior to the Civil War; the most beautiful in its musical composition may have been Stephen Foster’s “The White House Chair,” a hopeful call for national unity composed in support of James Buchanan. They happened to be inlaws, sort of, since Foster’s sister married Buchanan’s brother.
Let all our hearts for Union be, For the North and South are one; They’ve worked together manfully, And together they will still work on. Then come ye men from every State, Our creed is broad and fair; Buchanan is our candidate, And we’ll put him in the White House chair.
The Civil War brought about a boom in music publishing, and within a few decades the songwriting industry became codified under the rubric “Tin Pan Alley.” We owe that moniker (it seems) to the popular composer Monroe H. Rosenfeld, who wrote an article in the New York Herald that described the cacophony of pianos being played in rival publishers’ offices as resembling hundreds of people pounding on tin pans. Amidst all the noise emerged a song that provided particular delight in the campaign of 1884, which pitted Republican James G. Blaine (“Blaine of Maine”) against Democrat Grover Cleveland. The song was not so much pro-Blaine as it was anti-Cleveland. Cleveland, it was alleged, had fathered a child out of wedlock — and he did not deny it. The incident, which had occurred 10 years earlier, involved a woman in Buffalo. She had been generous in extending her affections to a number of local businessmen as well as to Cleveland, who was a prominent lawyer in town. A baby boy resulted. There was no way to determine the child’s paternity, but since all of the other likely fathers were married and Cleveland was not, he did the ostensibly noble thing and took credit, thereby getting his pals off the hook. Whether he was the father or not — and he may have been — it is not the sort of thing you want on your résumé if you run for president.
The Republicans gleefully chanted “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?” along with the rejoinder “Up in the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!” A songwriter would find it hard to resist, and the National Music Company of Chicago lost no time issuing a musical setting in the form of a waltzing dialogue between the mother and her son, who displays abysmal behavior due to lack of a father figure. Here’s the chorus: Ma! Ma! Where is my Pa? Up in the White House, darling. Making the laws, working the cause, Up in the White House, dear.
The songwriter was identified as H.R. Monroe. It turned out to be a pen name for Mr. Tin Pan Alley himself, Monroe H. Rosenfeld. It was all to no avail — Cleveland won. In the next election, he lost; and in the one after that, he prevailed for a belated second term. Rosenfeld’s antipathy for Cleveland held fast. The winners in that middle campaign were Republican Benjamin Harrison and his running mate, Levi Morton. The Republicans had the musical advantage of a ready-made repertoire of songs from the campaign of Harrison’s grandfather back in 1840. Many were fitted with new words and disseminated in such newly printed collections as the Harrison and Morton Campaign Songster. (There was also an illogical renaissance of log-cabin memorabilia.) Another campaign song in play in 1888 was “Tippecanoe and Morton, Too,” which was properly credited to M.H. Rosenfeld.
The golden age of Tin Pan Alley was the apogee for campaign songs. Some of the best during the opening decades of the 20th century were by leading lights of vaudeville and Broadway, including Blanche Merrill (“We Take Our Hats Off to You, Mr. Wilson”) and Al Jolson (“Harding, You’re the Man for Us”). But once radio began to penetrate American households, around 1930, the sheet-music industry began its descent, and the idea of writing campaign songs lost a good deal of its luster. Fervent examples were scattered through the four campaigns of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, supporting both him and his opponents. The election Truman won in 1948 left as part its legacy the unsuccessful song “We’ll Do It With Dewey,” and Eisenhower got one of Irving Berlin’s less inspired efforts (“I Like Ike, I’ll shout it over a mike …”). Once people got used to watching Kennedy on television, the idea of singing campaign songs grew insurmountably quaint, although Nixon, not making as effective a transition to the new media, sent around cardboard 45 rpm records of “Nixon’s the One” and “Click With Dick” (“Come on and click with Dick! The one that none can lick; He’s the man to lead the U.S.A . ... ”).
By that time, political campaigns were increasingly attaching candidates not to newly composed pieces that celebrated their characters or policies, but rather to generic popular songs that were supposed to surround them with some vaguely positive aura. Campaign songs may have worn out their usefulness as a medium, but for about a century and a quarter they entertained prospective voters and may have swayed a few votes along the way. For anything in popular culture, that would count as a pretty good run.
Go to sfnm.co/jingls to hear some examples of vintage campaign songs.
sy collection of James M. Keller