Songs in the Key of Presidency
If history were written in the sheet music of presidential campaign songs, every schoolchild would know that Abraham Lincoln was a lying baboon, Martin Van Buren worshiped Satan and Herbert Hoover’s name was synonymous with prosperity.
The presidential campaign song has a grand, bizarre tradition, but the role of the themes has changed dramatically in the years since Van Buren was bedeviled in verse. Once laced with personality and venom, the songs have become vague, rosy anthems.
Which brings us to the theme songs of George W. Bush and Al Gore. What deep truths do they reveal about our next leader in chief?
Well, whoever wins will have a profound appreciation of truckers.
Both campaigns have chosen songs that celebrate working-class heroism--drivers, soldiers and farmers--and sentimental optimism. To many ears, the songs are surprisingly similar. “Makes you wonder if it’s not a coincidence,” sniffs Michael Been, writer of the 1989 rock song “Let the Day Begin” that became Gore’s theme. “Our song came first; maybe they ripped it off.”
An unkind accusation, but then there have been plenty of those in the history of presidential campaign songs, arguably perfected in the 1836 theme warning voters that Van Buren “moves at Satan’s beck and nod” and was a politician “who heeds not man, who heeds not God.”
For all the blandness of today’s fare, a song occasionally becomes a telling campaign touchstone, the perfect example being Bill Clinton’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s mid-1970s pop song “Don’t Stop.” Combining nostalgia with the hopeful line “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” it musically encoded both Clinton’s baby-boomer target audience and his message.
And even in this well-spun political age, some quirky selections still slip through. Who can forget a beaming Ross Perot waltzing onstage after his 1992 defeat while the speakers blasted his theme, Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy”?
The hope of a campaign is to tap into a song that cuts through and becomes defining shorthand for a political moment, the way “Happy Days Are Here Again” buoyed Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression. There have also been many attempts to sprinkle some celebrity on a candidacy by tapping big-name talent, from Stephen Foster and Al Jolson to Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra.
This year, however, the songs are relatively anonymous, last-minute selections and come from artists who are neither superstars nor, it turns out, particularly committed to the candidates invoking their handiwork.
Gore’s “Let the Day Begin” was recorded by a defunct rock band named the Call, while Bush’s handlers have picked “We the People,” a slice of Southern rock from country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, he of “Achy Breaky Heart” fame.
Los Angeles-based songwriter Been, who was the lead singer of the Call, says no one from the Gore campaign ever called him to say the song would be a campaign centerpiece. He found out only when his phone answering machine clogged with messages from friends who watched the Democratic convention.
“It came out of the blue,” says Been. “I would have liked if they asked. But my politics are closer to Gore. If it was Bush that used it, to be honest, I would have called to tell them I had a problem.”
The Cyrus song was offered to both campaigns as a theme by the country singer’s label, Sony’s Monument Records, which releases the song this month on the album “Southern Rain.” “We the People,” which features Waylon Jennings and a raft of guest singers, includes the line: “We pay the taxes, we pay the bills, so they better pay attention on Capitol Hill.”
Cyrus, stung through the years by the perception of him as a one-hit wonder, hopes Bush’s use of the song will deliver another monster hit like “Achy Breaky Heart.” Still, when the campaign called to ask for “We the People,” Cyrus thought twice.
“It’s struck me as different because it’s a working people’s song, y’know, and I’ve never really thought of the Republicans as the party of the working people,” he said. “Am I wrong?”
His Democratic father has an answer. Ron Cyrus, a former state lawmaker and union leader in Kentucky, told reporters last month that the song is inappropriate for the GOP. “That,” he said, “is a Democrat song.”
Billy Ray Cyrus says he is a “lifelong” Democrat, which is why he performed at Clinton campaign events back in their shared glory year of 1992. He even danced beside the stiff-legged Gore on stage at the inaugural celebration.
But that’s all history now--Cyrus is singing and voting for Bush, right?
“Uh, well, I’m waiting for the debates,” he said, carefully choosing his words. “There’s a whole lot of election to go.”
In fact, Cyrus says he would not rule out performing the official Bush song at a Gore event if asked, a prospect that might give a certain Texas governor an achy breaky heart. Cyrus says the song is really just an endorsement of “getting the American people to use their freedom to vote. . . . I wish both campaigns would use it.”
Now that would be a first.
Even Washington Had Sing-Along Themes
In presidential politics, campaign songs have been around longer than campaign races.
George Washington didn’t have an opponent, but he had a number of sing-along themes, among them “Follow Washington,” notes Oscar Brand, an Emmy- and Peabody-winning singer, composer and playwright who last year recorded the album “Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996.”
“The songs were very popular; sometimes people who didn’t even support a candidate would know all the words and join in,” Brand said.
Many of the themes borrowed familiar melodies, such as the James A. Garfield song, “If the Johnnies Get Into Power Again.” That 1880 song copped the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and warned that “Johnny Rebs” in Southern states sought to take over the federal government.
Fear was often a backbeat for the songs. John Quincy Adams’ ominous 1824 theme, “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming,” inventoried what would be coming if Adams lost. It’s quite the list, including fire, swords, plague, plunder, pestilence, slavery and, that old favorite, knavery.
“He won,” notes Brand.
Some of the songs were intensely personal attacks. The song for Stephen A. Douglas, for instance, mocked supporters of the gangly Lincoln by saying, “Tell us any lie you want to, in any kind of mixture, but we pray you, God we pray you, don’t show us his picture.” William H. Harrison was portrayed as an alcoholic trickster, and one anti-Thomas Jefferson song described his scandalous relations with Sally Hemings, a slave in his household.
Brand gives his highest praise to Jefferson’s own theme in the 1800 election, the race that may have marked the first official use of campaign songs, which previously sprang up informally.
“For Jefferson and Liberty,” to the tune of an old Scottish reel, was “just a beauty, a great song set into a stirring tune,” Brand says. The weakest campaign song to Brand’s ear is more recent: “Gerald Ford’s song is as bland as you can get, which may be appropriate, no? It says ‘I’m feeling good about America,’ and that’s about it.”
And this year’s songs?
“Forgettable,” he says, suggesting neither will make his next CD.
Jeff Pollack, a music programming consultant for more than 100 radio stations, also says he doesn’t hear a hit in the themes, although he was less harsh than Brand.
“The Call’s ‘Let the Day Begin’ is an unexpected choice but a good one,” Pollack said. “It is superior not only musically but in getting a positive, optimistic message across to potential Gore voters. The Billy Ray Cyrus song is a decent tune and should play well in some parts of the country . . . but don’t expect to hear either song on the radio.”
Still, to an American public accustomed to having moments of supreme drama delivered with music in its films, commercials and sports highlights, music in politics remains vital. It’s also seen as a way to give a candidate a charisma tune-up.
Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, recently warbled “My Way” on a late-night talk show, just as Clinton once donned sunglasses to play “Heartbreak Hotel” on a saxophone--both contrived moments to warm up voters.
Sometimes, however, politicians hit a wrong note.
Ronald Reagan, for instance, once referenced the “patriotic” imagery of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song that is actually a dark essay on the fractured American dream. The Boss was not pleased.
A staffer should have checked the Springsteen lyrics, just as some advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might have better researched the John Phillip Sousa march “The Liberty Bell” that accompanied the Republican hopeful at some rallies.
The jaunty march may have been tapped to evoke McCain’s exuberance and military background, but, for some reason, some audience members kept chuckling and making jokes about lumberjacks and silly walks.
That’s because the tune’s most famous use has been as the theme to the oddball British television show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Serenading Candidates on Campaign Trail
Both Bush and Gore have squads of advisors that have huddled and selected songs that, along with the official themes, serenade the candidates on the trail. Using recordable CD technology, each campaign has also “burned” discs with songs selected to stir emotions at rallies.
“Big, upfront songs, that’s what you’re looking for, something that gets people up and excited or creates a mood,” says Jim Loftus, a Gore campaign leader. “You have to be careful about the content. ‘Up’ and positive messages are great. You want to make sure the lyrics are not praising a serial killer. But really, it’s more about emotional communication than anything front-brained.”
Sometimes the messages go beyond emotion. At the Republican convention this year, Latin music was used often to project the party’s emphasis on inclusion, said Tucker Eskew, a campaign spokesman.
“It sent an important message and it communicates directly,” said Eskew, who helped select the campaign’s music. “And it’s great that it’s fun, upbeat music as well--politics don’t have to be boring all the time.”
Eskew says that spirit explains why “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the Beatles song, introduced a convention speech on Social Security and why John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” is a staple for Bush events. “Get it? ‘Centerfield,’ not too far to the right--and it’s about baseball, and Gov. Bush has the background with the [Texas] Rangers.”
After a few beats, Eskew added, “You know, you can overthink this stuff. . . .”
Bush’s campaign once considered for its anthem “Closer to Free,” by the BoDeans, a song best known as the theme from the canceled Fox television series “Party of Five.” In a meeting at Bush’s Austin, Texas, headquarters just before the GOP’s July convention, Bush aides talked up the song, noting that the rock band hailed from a battleground state (Wisconsin) and was led by a singer with Latino heritage.
Virtually all of this is lost on voters.
At a recent Bush rally in Springfield, Mo., the Oak Ridge Boys performed on an airport tarmac to warm up the crowd for the candidate. No one in the audience was clapping more than Lee Woodworth Fudge, but she grew serious when the music stopped. She had come to see the candidate.
Fudge moved to the Ozarks less than two years ago after living in Laguna Niguel, where she was frustrated by steep tuition at Christian schools and a general lack of “wholesome family values.” A former Perot supporter, she is leaning toward Bush, but music won’t play a part in her vote.
“It’s just image, and while image is important--I think it’s the reason [Bob] Dole lost last time--it’s not what I care about,” she said. “They got the Oak Ridge Boys because they know around here it’s a crowd pleaser, but that won’t win votes. It’s about issues and values, not music.”
Just then a Van Halen song with caterwauling vocals and big guitar blared out of the rally speakers. Fudge winced. “But I sure wouldn’t vote for this song.”
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Even Washington Had a Song
Campaign songs have been a part of U.S. presidential politics since the beginning, and the tunes offer a telling, sometimes bizarre commentary on the winners and losers for the nation’s highest office. Below, singer-composer Oscar Brand, who last year released a musical survey of presidential campaign songs, offers some of his favorite campaign song moments.
George Washington was serenaded with new words to “God Save the King” sung by all except his old Revolutionary buddy Thomas Paine, who wrote, “I don’t know whether you have abandoned your old principles or whether you ever had any.”
1797-1801 John Adams’ campaign anthem in his competition with Thomas Jefferson used the tune of an English drinking song that became the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
1801-’09 The writer of Thomas Jefferson’s song was the same man who wrote Adams’ theme. The writer’s real name was Tom Paine but he changed it to Robert Treat Paine for fear he might be mistaken for Thomas Paine the Revolutionary.
1861-’65 Abraham Lincoln was called “that baboon in the White House” and “murderer of women and children.” Among the nasty lyrics sung by his enemies was,
“Tell us any lie you want to,
In any kind of mixture,
But we pray you,
God we pray you,
Don’t show us his picture.”
1909-’13 William H. Taft, a 350-pound-plus president, was serenaded with “Get on a Raft With Taft,”a sure recipe for capsizing. His exact weight was never known because there was no scale made in his size.
1913-’21 Woodrow Wilson was a very dignified gentleman, a minister’s son who had been president of Princeton. But because he had the same name as a well-known whiskey, his campaign song was the same as that of the whiskey, “Wilson, That’s All.”
1923-’29 Calvin Coolidge, reelected in 1924, used the slogan and song, “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” When it was announced that he was dead, Dorothy Parker asked, “How can they tell?”
1929-’33 Songmaster Irving Berlin made the worst prophecy ever in his 1927 song favoring Al Smith against Herbert Hoover,
“Prosperity does not depend on who’s in that chair,
We’re gonna have prosperity no matter who’s there,
And there’ll be blue skies with Hoover
But there’ll be bluer skies with Al.”
1963-’69 Jerry Herman rewrote his lyrics to “Hello, Dolly” to accommodate President Lyndon B. Johnson. But he crossed over in the next election and changed “Hello, Lyndon” into “Hello, Nixon.” It was Robert Treat Paine all over again.
The official campaign songs of George W. Bush and Al Gore both salute hard-working Americans. Some excerpts from the lyrics.
BUSH CAMPAIGN SONG
“We the People”
Here’s to every salesman on the telephone line,
And every waitress working hard for those dimes,
The middle managers who punch overtime,
And anyone fighting wars, fires, and crimes.
Day after day, year after year,
The mint might print them, but the buck stops here.
OFFICIAL GORE SONG
“Let the Day Begin”
Here’s to the babies in a brand new world,
Here’s to the beauty of the stars,
Here’s to the travelers on the open road,
Here’s to dreamers in the bars,
Here’s to the teachers in the crowded rooms,
Here’s to the workers in the fields,
Here’s to the preachers of the sacred words,
Here’s to the drivers at the wheel.
To hear excerpts from the campaign songs, visit The Times Web site, www.latimes.com/songs
Sources: “Presidential Campaign Songs 1789-1996”; Oscar Brand
Researched by GEOFF BOUCHER /Los Angeles Times
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This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. On the death of Calvin Coolidge it was Dorothy Parker, not Alice Roosevelt, who said “How can they tell?”
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