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How presidential campaign songs have rallied supporters

January 22, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


This year, political watchers will be listening to more than the candidates’ speeches, because the music that precedes them has traditionally been an election factor.

Sanders’ new ad uses Simon & Garfunkel theme

On Thursday, Democratic contender Bernie Sanders created a lot of buzz with a campaign ad set to Simon & Garfunkel’s"America.”

GOP front runner Donald Trump has been using a playlist of songs before rallies, including Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It.” Katy Perry has offered to write Hillary Clinton’s theme song.

Sanders also  plays Neil Young and Woody Guthrie songs before rallies, and the Jeb Bush campaign recently used a Nancy Sinatra song to make fun of Marco Rubio. And then there was the use of Adele’s “Hello” in a Chris Christie ad that also criticized Rubio.

Of course, in recent years there’s also been the controversy over candidates using popular songs without their publisher’s permission, such as regular squabbles over the playing “Eye Of The Tiger” at political rallies. Or viral anomalies like “Obama Girl.”

Music has been part of presidential campaigns since George Washington ran unopposed for the office. The songs started to turn nasty in the 1800 election when supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson cast insults over the Alien and Sedition acts, and Jefferson’s character. In recent years, candidates have taken over popular songs to promote an image to voters.

Here’s a quick look at some landmark campaign songs and how they influenced the public.

1. Founding Fathers feud in 1800. A popular pro-Jefferson song, “Jefferson and Liberty” took aim at President Adams’s controversial laws that made it a crime to criticize his government.  “The reign of terror now is o’er; Its gags, inquisitors and spies, Its hordes of harpies are no more,” were some of the words set to a catchy tune.  Pro-Adams songs spoke about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings.

Listen: Pete Seeger sings “Jefferson and Liberty”

2. Jackson and John Quincy Adams. In 1824 and 1828, the contentious race saw the use of the first semi-official presidential theme song, “The Hunters of Kentucky.” The song was used to celebrate Jackson’s military victory at the Battle of New Orleans back in 1815. “But Jackson he was wide awake, And was not scar’d at trifles, For well he knew what aim we take, With our Kentucky rifles,” sang his supporters.

Listen: Bradley Kincaid sings “The Hunters of Kentucky”

3.  Harrison hits it big with one song and slogan. William Henry Harrison’s presidency is best known for his stirring election campaign – and not his 30 days in the White House. The campaign’s theme song, “Tip and Ty” expounded the merits of the hero of Tippecanoe. “For Tippecanoe and Tyler too. And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van, Van is a used up man. And with them we’ll beat little Van,” went the lyrical attack on President Martin Van Buren.

Listen: Oscar Brand sings “Tip and Ty”

4.   Lincoln and Liberty, Too. The legendary Hutchinson Family Singers, a popular traveling group that supported the abolition of slavery, praised the “rail-maker statesman” using a version of “Adams and Liberty” from the 1800 campaign. “Our David’s good sling is unerring, The Slaveocrats’ giant he slew; Then shout for the Freedom-preferring—For Lincoln and Liberty too!”

Listen: Ronnie Gilbert Sings  Lincoln and Liberty, Too.

5.   Get On The Raft With Taft. Although there were a slew songs based on Taft’s nickname, Possum Bill, the audacious “Get On The Raft With Taft” is best-remembered today  - probably because of the unlikely site of anyone joining the 340-ound Taft on any live raft. But in 1908 songwriters Abe Holtzman and Harry Kerr didn’t have a lot of rhyming options with this tune. “He’ll save the country sure, boys, From Bryan, Hearst, and graft, So all join in, we’re sure to win, Get on a raft with Taft!” was the repeating chorus in this campaign favorite.

Listen: Oscar Brand sings “Get On The Raft With Taft”

6. FDR’s legacy of campaign songs. During his 12 years on office, Franklin Roosevelt has numerous songs written for him and about him, from an official campaign song (“We Want A Man Like Roosevelt”), an anti-FDR song (“Long Live Franklin The First”), an attack song (“Willkie Should Stay In Wall Street”) and a fourth-term re-election song (“Don’t Change Horses”). But history will also link Roosevelt’s presidency to a popular dance tune from the early 1930s, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Listen: Ben Selvin’s Orchestra Hit Version From 1930

7.  I’m Just Wild About Harry.  In 1948, the Truman campaign went back to the early 1920s to revive a popular song from the breakthrough Broadway play, “Shuffle Along.” Sissle and Blake’s musical portrayed a romance between African-Americans.  The song gained new popularity after Truman’s upset with over Thomas Dewey, and Truman’s followers had a field day singing the tune.

Listen: Judy Garland’s Version From 1939

8.    I Like Ike. The Eisenhower campaign turned to Irving Berlin, another legendary songwriter, for inspiration. Berlin had written a song, “They Like Ike,” for his Broadway show “Call Me Madam.” Berlin reworked the song for the Republican campaign in 1952. “Ike is easy to like, stands alone the choice of “We the People,” went the shortened campaign version.

Listen: Oscar Brand sings “I Like Ike”

9.  Ross Perot goes country. The insurgent 1992 candidate made a rare three-person presidential election unpredictable until the end. His theme-song choice, Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy,” raised more than a few eyebrows.  The original 1961 version was written by a little-known writer at the time, Willie Nelson.

Listen: Patsy Cline performs “Crazy” at Grand Ole Opry

10. Fleetwood Mac and the 1992 campaign. Bill Clinton followed the spirit of earlier Democrats who used popular songs to boost the morale of their followers. John Kennedy, for example, adapted Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” for his 1960 campaign, while Lyndon Johnson turned to Carol Channing in 1964. Clinton, as a Baby Boomer presidential candidate, used 1970s rock icons Fleetwood Mac for inspiration. The group played the song at Clinton’s first inauguration.

Listen: Fleetwood Mac plays at inauguration

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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