The Evolution of the Campaign Song, from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama
Before the dawn of electronic media, politicians used songs to deliver attack ads and to woo voters
by Beth Rowen
Long before presidential candidates criticized each other in vitriolic attack ads on television, the internet, and the radio, politicians used jaunty tunes to deliver their barbs. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, presidential aspirants commissioned songwriters to pen campaign songs to not only woo voters but also to assail their opponents. Some wrote original music to go with the lyrics, while others set the lyrics to marches or popular songs. The songs were sold as sheet music and in mini songbooks known as "songsters."
Negativity Not a Recent Phenomenon
In the 1800 election between President John Adams and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, the candidates attacked each other mercilessly. In his campaign song, "Jefferson and Liberty," Jefferson referred to the Alien and Seditions Acts, enacted under Adams, as the "reign of terror."
"Little Know Ye Who's Coming," the 1828 campaign song of incumbent John Quincy Adams, warned of all sorts of calamity if Andrew Jackson were elected. Adams lost the election; perhaps voters were turned off by the negativity of the campaign. Here are a few verses of the song:
"Fire's Comin', swords is comin', Pistols, guns and knives is comin', Famine's comin', banning's comin', If John Quincy not be comin'!
Tears are comin', fears are coming, Plague and pestilence is comin', Hatin's comin;, Satan's comin', If John Quincy not be comin''
Going for the Jug-ular
The 1840 presidential race, considered the first modern campaign, saw candidates from two parties facing off and campaigning on a national scale using an array of slogans, campaign songs, and pamphlets. Whig William Henry Harrison sold himself as a man of the people and portrayed incumbent Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, as elite and out of touch with the populace. Sound familiar? Harrison's famous slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," was actually inspired by his campaign song, "Tip and Ty," which derided Van Buren as "Little Van" and "Little Matty." Van Buren fired back, accusing Harrison of being a hard drinker in a tune set to "Rock-a-Bye Baby:"
"Daddy's a Whig. When he comes home, hard cider he'll swig. When he has swug, he'll fall in a stu. And down will come Tyler and Tippecanoe."
When Theodore Roosevelt decided against seeking a third term, he persuaded former judge William H. Taft to accept the Republican nomination in 1908. The reluctant candidate took advantage of Roosevelt's endorsement while campaigning against Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Taft's campaign song, "Get on the Raft with Taft," poked fun of Bryan's repeated—and unsuccessful—presidential bids:
Of Bryan's bluff we've had enough He'll talk you deaf and blind The million trusts he's going to bust Are only in his mind Seems he has run since Washington First started in the game If his legs were gone He'd keep right on A-running just the same
Popping It Up
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to adopt an existing song as his theme. At the 1932 convention, in an attempt to lift the mood after a dry speech by Judge John E. Mack, organizers played "Happy Days Are Here Again" before Roosevelt took to the podium. The song, which captured the optimism of a country recovering from the Depression, went on to be the theme of his campaign—and of the Democratic Party for several years.
Several politicians have appropriated Broadway show tunes for their theme songs. Irving Berlin penned the song "I Like Ike" for Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 run for the presidency. The song inspired Eisenhower's familiar—and succinct—campaign slogan. Frank Sinatra adapted Sammy Cahn's 1959 pop tune "High Hopes" for John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign, penning lyrics that reflected the sense of optimism in Kennedy's youth and the dawn of a new decade:
Everyone is voting for Jack Cause he's got what all the rest lack Everyone wants to back — Jack Jack is on the right track. 'Cause he's got high hopes He's got high hopes Nineteen Sixty's the year for his high hopes.
For his 1964 campaign song, Lyndon Johnson chose one of the most popular songs of the day, "Hello, Dolly," written by lyricist Jerry Herman for the Broadway musical of the same name. The lyrics were re-written for Johnson's campaign, and Carol Channing, the show's star, sang "Hello, Lyndon" at the Democratic National Convention. Republican nominee Barry Goldwater also had a fondness for the song and commissioned a rewrite of the song, but Hello, Dolly, producer David Merrick, reminded Goldwater that he had violated copyright laws and the song was never heard again from the Goldwater camp.
Did They Bother to Listen?
Some campaigns have made rather questionable song choices, leading one to wonder if a candidate or staff member bothered to listen to the lyrics. Did George McGovern think Simon and Garfunkel's serene ballad "Bridge Over Troubled Water" would inspire voters? In the 1984 election, Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." as his theme song, ostensibly because he thought it was a patriotic anthem. However, the song actually laments the agony veterans faced when they returned from the Vietnam War. Springsteen requested that Reagan stop using the song.
One must assume that in selecting Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty," John McCain was referring to Barack Obama, not his own campaign. However, the choice was costly for McCain; Browne sued the Republican Party for copyright infringement and won an undisclosed amount of money. And in another "What were they thinking" moments, independent candidate Ross Perot, known for his quirkiness (to put it gently), went with Patsy Cline's "Crazy" for his theme song. Not hard to believe coming from a guy who picked James Stockdale as his running mate.
Bill Clinton can take credit for the resurgence of Fleetwood Mac. For his first run in 1992, he selected the group's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)" as his campaign song. It struck a chord with his supporters, and he convinced the disbanded band to reunite and play the song at his 1993 inaugural.
George W. Bush didn't have much luck in choosing campaign songs. He used songs by Tom Petty, Sting, and John Mellencamp, and they all demanded that he stop, saying use of the songs implied they were endorsing his candidacy.
Will.i.am took it upon himself to produce a song for presidential hopeful Barack Obama. The Black-Eyed Peas frontman released "Yes We Can" in February 2008 after Obama lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton. The song featured will.i.am and an assortment of musicians and actors reciting quotes from Obama's concession speech. The video went viral on YouTube and illustrated how Obama resonated with the youth of the nation.
Aspiring presidents, from the Founding Fathers to politicians of the 21st century, have relied on the enduring medium of music to convey their message, whether it be one of hope (Obama), optimism (Roosevelt), or vitriol (John Quincy Adams). Love them or hate them, these songs have become part of history and our culture.