Pop and cir­cum­stance

CAM­PAIGN SONG­WRIT­ING

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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