It goes like this:
The story of America is a simple one: money grubbers, religious fanatics, and a couple of utopian visionaries (I'm looking at you Georgia) get together and despite being little more than a half-assed collection of tax-dodging kooks, we manage to throw off the yoke of British subjection. (The lesson is that monarchist traditions only get you one thing: oppression; but when you're good and crazy, baby, the sky is the freakin' limit!) Not bad for a half-assed collection of kooks, right? Sure there are some missteps here and there – the whole Civil War thing and such – but we've had a hell of a run. At least, we did until the Great Depression. In that grim chapter of our nation's history FDR instituted a new policy that pretty much destroys the spirit of this once great nation. That's right, I'm talking about his decision to use an un-original tune as his campaign song, specifically his choice to use the insipid, cloying, and at the time utterly false "Happy Days Are Here Again." This more than his Supreme Court packing schemes, his financial experimentalism, and his utter disregard for traditional term limits is truly the sign of his complete disregard for American political traditions.
Even George Washington, a man who could have run against Jesus and beat him (twice), felt it was important to have an original campaign song. Because there was no real native tradition to pull from and because George wasn't that inventive his "original" song was maybe not as original as it could have been. Issued in 1780, "God Save George Washington" is basically "God Save the King" with George Washington inserted somewhat clumsily wherever "the king" used to be. One could argue that this was, in some sense, metaphorically appropriate; many at the time remarked on what was believed to be a crypto-monarchist tendency on the part of His Excellency, the first President of the United States. Still, it was nominally an original tune and it started a tradition as fine as Washington's lesser traditional contribution: the two-term limit.
Because this is an American political tradition, it went into the gutter almost immediately. In 1824, John Quincy Adams brought the tradition to an all-time low with his vicious "Little Know Ye Who's Coming." One of the weirdest campaign songs ever committed to paper, "Little Know Ye" paints a picture of the apocalypse that will descend on the United States if Adams doesn't win the election. The song predicts that violence will break out, warns that plagues and famine will sweep the land, and warns that Satan will stride the nation. All this will "be comin' if John Quincy not be comin'." It is, by far, the single most fucked up tune in our political history and, as a treat, you can clickee here and find a cover that got updated for the Bush/Kerry election. Some might find this curiously accurate.
Perhaps the fullest flowering of the tradition came during the election of 1840. Martin "the Little Wizard" Van Buren, snappy dresser and first native born US prez, was smarting from a dismissal economic crisis. Utter lack of precedent left Van Buren helpless: it was simply not clear in his time if presidents could or should take action during financial meltdowns. Either way, he was screwed and his opponent, war hero William Henry Harrison, made full use of political campaign song to take the incumbent down. Political supporters of Harrison could actually purchase an entire song book, The Tippicanoe Songbook, full of odes to their favorite Whig. The big chart topper from this irresistible collection of hits was "Tip and Tye," a short single with music and lyrics credited to the anonymous "A Member of the Fifth Ward Club." More than Washington's strange homage to the former colonial masters of the land, this tune was the explosive start of a strong tradition of original campaign tunes.
By clicking on this very link you will magically be transported to a video that, inexplicably, plays They Might Be Giants playing "Tip and Tye" as a person with a camcorder aimlessly wanders about the grounds of rather unimpressive Salt Lake City apartment building. Yeah. I know. What did we do before YouTube? Nothing I guess. Sat around, I reckon, wondering when YouTube would happen.
After Harrison thrashed Van Buren, campaign songs became too essential to be left to "A Member of the Fifth Ward Club" or other anonymous amateurs. Stephen Foster – the one man Tin Pan Alley behind "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Oh, Susanna," "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," and "Old Folks at Home (Swanne River)" – produced the music and lyrics to a pro-George McClellan campaign song called "Little Mac! Little Mac! You're the Very Man." McClellan had managed secure the Democratic nomination despite the party's disorganization after losing a majority of its members to the Confederacy. Little Mac went up against his former Commander-and-Chief, running on a firm appeasement platform. What makes this song a particularly stellar artifact in the history of the Donkey Party is its outright racism. Next time somebody suggests that Lincoln was a slavery supporter, one might do well to consider what his Northern Democratic opponents called him and the members of his administration even prior to the Emancipation Proclamation:
"Dem-o-crats, Dem-o-crats, do it up brown
Lincoln and his Nigger heads won't go down
Greeley and Summer and all that crew,
We must beat Lincoln and Johnson too."
Now I'm not blaming Stephen Foster's race baiting lyrics, but we wouldn't have another Democratic president until 1884: elected by a cross-party coalition of Democrats and dissident Republicans – then called what is surely the most wonderful term in the American political lexicon: "Mugwumps" – Grover Cleveland managed to beat James G. Blaine, the so-called "Plumed Knight of Maine." (That's another sad tradition that's lost – our knack for creative political nicknames seems to have left us.) Cleveland was, like Harrison, a prolific source of musical inspiration – he had the campaign song "Hurrah! Hurrah! For Cleve and Steve" (VP Adlai Stevenson) and an Inaugural March – curiously dedicated to "His Excellency" still, a Washingtonian touch.
The least helpful campaign song in history may be William Whelan's "William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska," campaign song of three-time loser Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Though it clearly didn't do a thing to help Bryan, it is a shockingly blunt song for a piece of campaign propaganda. With its overt economic populism, strong anti-colonial sentiments, and fire and brimstone imagery the song seems, even today, more forceful than most candidates would allow.
There's a silver lion rampant
in the wild and wooly west;
You will know him by the silver stars
that gleam upon his crest;
You will know him by the cross and crown
he bears upon his breast;
As William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska!
He is coming, boys, coming,
and he's coming here to stay,
The people are a-waiting
for his coming light and day
The trusts and combinations
too had better clear the way,
for William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska!
With the stars and stripes above him,
he will sweep this country through,
He will leave a trail of fire behind
that nothing can subdue;
As a leader of the people,
he is fearless, staunch and true;
Is William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska!
As the glorious incarnation
of the democratic creed,
As the friend of law and order
and the foe of selfish greed;
With the courage of a leader
who is not afraid to lead;
Stands William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska!
Pro-claim from ev'ry mountain crag,
on ev'ry land and sea:
The Constitution and the Flag
shall still united be;
They must stand or fall together
as the guardians of the free
With William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska!
They may starve the Puerto Ricans,
they may crush the Phillipines;
But the people will arouse them
from those proud, imperial dreams;
And democracy shall conquer,
when its bannered light'ning gleams,
O'er William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska!
William "Tons of Fun" Taft would have the only campaign song that was a waltz: 1908's "Good and Honest Taft," with music and lyrics by Annie R. Waln Bassett, one of the few females composers to contribute to the tradition. The title is unintentionally ironic considering that Taft once joking explained his own political success as the product of the fact that he had his "plate the right side up when offices were falling." Wilson would appeal to white ethnic minorities by sliding a bagpipe solo into his 1912 "Wilson – That's All." That same year, Theodore Roosevelt would give third parties their first major campaign song with "We're Ready for Teddy Again." This is certainly a better option than the self-fulfilling prophecy third-party candidate Ross Perot picked as his campaign theme: Patsy Cline's "Crazy."
The last significant campaign song in US Presidential history would be Warren Harding's fox-trot influenced "President Harding March."
Uncle Sam You have chosen a real live man
For he is the best, stood the test,
he's a regular American
Tragically, FDR would kill the tradition by picking up, whole cloth, an already established tune. Truman would follow suit by picking "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Eisenhower attempted to reverse the trend with "I Like Ike," but the damage was done. Some reworked tunes in the spirit of "God Bless George Washington" would appear from time to time. Gershwin would rework his "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Love Is Sweeping the Country" for candidate Adlai Stevenson (II). Nixon would take an obscure ballad titled "Buckle Down, Winsocki" and rework in the delightfully goofy "Buckle Down with Nixon." Through the magic of YouTube, you can watch a gent play Nixon's battle cry on the accordion. But these original flourishes would become increasingly few and far between. After Carter, no candidate would use an original tune for their official song.
(As an aside Gershwin wrote a spoof campaign song for a fictional candidate named John P. Wintergreen. The song, "A Vote for Wintergreen is a Vote for Wintergreen," contained only four lines:
Wintergreen for president!
Wintergreen for president!
He's the man the people choose,
Loves the Irish and the Jews.
Wintergreen wins, but loses his re-election to a man whose song goes:
Tweedledee for president!
Tweedledee for president!
He's the man the country seeks!
Loves the Turks and the Greeks!)
In a way, FDR's selection would be the perfect archetype for all future pre-fab campaign themes. Increasingly, they'd become more about a nebulous feeling. Gone are the specific allusions to the campaign context and to important issues of day. They are replaced with generic sentiments. "But the people will arouse them from those proud, imperial dreams" is replaced by "Happy days are here again/The skies above are clear again/So, Let's sing a song of cheer again." This reductive tendency would reach its absurd limit when Reagan selected Bruce Springsteen's "Born on the USA," a song about the inability of Vietnam vets to reintegrate into the economically depressed America they came home too, as the sonic complement to his "Morning in America" slogan. (Eventually Springsteen put a stop to the Reagan campaign's use of the song.) George H. W. Bush at least had the common sense to remove the line about ignoring private property when he took "This Land is Your Land" as his campaign tune.
There's been one sterling exception to this trend. Republican candidate Bob Dole chose the refreshingly bizarre "I'm a Dole Man," a weird novelty song reworking of Sam and Dave's soul classic "Soul Man." Where Dole came up with this curious and totally un-Dole-like song is beyond me, but he gets points for trying. Compare this to the vapid insincerity of Bill Clinton's choice that year: Fleetwood Mac's generically hopeful "Don't Stop." Sure Dole's tune was just as dumb and insincere, but it was flamboyantly dumb and personally insincere to the point of nearly being a parody of campaign songs in general. Eventually, Dole switched his song to the Rocky theme song – actually titled "Gonna Fly Now." It is generally held among professional campaigners that the theme from Rocky is good luck. It didn't work for Dole, but it gave Ted Kennedy a comeback in 1980 when Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" wasn't getting it done.
In the current campaign, the closest we've come to an outpouring of original campaign songs is the burst of candidate-specific tunes that came in the wake of the cheese R&B jam "I've Got a Crush on Obama." Sadly, the candidates have been either indifferent or openly hostile to these. Instead, like FDR, they've relied on canned tunes. Despite holding an online vote to select her campaign song – with options ranging from U2's "City of Blinding Lights" to Smashmouth's cover of the Monkee's "I'm a Believer" – Hillary Clinton dumped the online poll and is going with Celine Dion's "You and I."
That's right. Go listen to "Little Know Ye Who's Coming" again and then think about any Celine Dion song. You can now see what's wrong with America.
But we don't have to allow this! Sure, there's a lot of crap we Americans do have to put up with – taxes, bad television, the Writer's Strike, the decline of the written word as an important medium of communication, the existence of Europe – but this isn't one o' those things! I urge each and every American citizen, regardless of their political persuasion, to write an email to the candidate of their choice and urge them to come up with an original campaign song. We can save America and restore her to greatness. Together, we turn this nation around. Now I know that some of you are Canadian and others are Brits. The Canadians are excused from this. This isn't your fault. But you Brits . . . in a way it was your obsessive need for colonies that started this nation and got us all in this crap in the first place. You're just as much to blame for this as anybody so I expect you to do the honorable thing and help out.
Thank you. God bless America and God bless a free Iraq.
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