I’m Feeling Bad About America

The sick history of the U.S. campaign song

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Resting somewhere on the spectrum between sportsy fight song and full-bodied propaganda, the American campaign song is too obtuse to qualify as a proper genre in its own right. Rather, it is the distillation of politics’ tendency to corrupt the arts and narrow lyrical complexity in service of crass commercial nationalism. With us nearly since the founding of the republic, the campaign song—whether composed as an original electoral ditty or stolen kicking and screaming from pop culture—is frequently the porch popular music crawls beneath before it rolls into the fetal position and dies while exuding vapors of aural toxicity. None of this means that the campaign song has nothing to teach us: its history constitutes a signifying bundle of rank cultural misappropriation and political doltishness. While by no means definitive, the following playlist aims to recover the useful bits of history muscled out by the campaign song’s depressing, interminable march into the present.

“Hail to the Chief”

James Sanderson, 1812

When the horrible night of November 8, 2016, was coming to its ghastly end, the bartender kicked us out onto the street, blasted “Hail to the Chief,” and commenced screaming, which endowed this presidential anthem of anthems with a black metal edge. The truth is anything would improve “Hail to the Chief,” a song so banal that shit-kicking, hard-drinking, mean old cuss of an accidental president Chester A. Arthur loutishly demanded it be replaced, for the duration of his term, with a John Philip Sousa original charmingly titled the “Presidential Polonaise,” which sounds like Holst’s Planets mashed up with Disneyland’s Electric Light Parade. With the return of president and future Muppet Grover Cleveland, order was restored and “Hail to the Chief” went back in the queue.

“Hail to the Chief,” for all its sins, began as “The Lady of the Lake,” an epic poem by Sir Walter Scott about the mobilization of the Highland Clans in advance of their revolt against King James V of Scotland. The chief in question is the bloodthirsty Roderigh Dhu of the Alpine Clan, who in the second canto attempts the rape of Ellen Douglas, a potential relative of the king: “Hail to the chief, who in triumph advances/ Honour’d and blest be the evergreen pine!” You don’t say. Set to music to commemorate George Washington and the end of the War of 1812, the main ingredients of the modern campaign song were already in place, namely (1) the détournement of an existing history for party-political gain (2) the theft of the song from a popular bard of the day (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is the most famous latter-day example, having been reduced to a nativist anthem by Ronald Reagan in 1984, which makes as much sense as using the Village People’s “In the Navy” as a recruitment ad), and (3) the occasion for a tug-of-war between opposing bodies for mastery of the song’s connotation.[*]  This inevitably leads the nullification of all music, which it reduces to a mere sound or signal: “Hail to the Chief” was played by the 1st Virginia Infantry to announce the arrival of Jefferson Davis in 1861, which is only surprising when you remember that the Confederate States of America had “Dixie,” a song so beloved by Abraham Lincoln that he insisted on its swift return to federal property, intimating that “as we had captured the rebel army, we had also captured the rebel tune.”

Scott’s poem wound up inspiring the Ku Klux Klan, who took the tradition of cross-burning from the third canto, wherein the Crann Tara rallies the stray highlanders against their liege. It also supplied the last name of Frederick Douglass, who identified so heavily with the poem’s heroic exile James Douglas that he dropped his abolition efforts, late in his life, in favor of learning and performing Scottish folk ballads, identifying himself as Afro-Saxon to the befuddlement of the editors of the anti-slavery journal The Liberator. But Douglass understood something crucial about the campaign song: whoever sings it is only, to borrow a term from Damo Suzuki, a “sound-carrier,” and the provenance of a given refrain belongs to anyone who is willing to carry the tune.

“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”

Alexander Coffman Ross, 1840

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” is a jam. The first modern song to be expressly tied to a presidential campaign, it celebrated William Henry Harrison’s defeat of Tecumseh during the Indian uprising of 1811 in Indiana Territory. The selling point of Harrison’s “Log Cabin Campaign,” it hurled him into a presidency that would last all of thirty-one days, on account of pneumonia and a questionable treatment by attending surgeons, who relied on something called “Virginia snakeweed,” leeches, and castor oil. It’s just as well; no executive branch in history could live up to “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” composed by Alexander Coffman Ross to the tune of “Little Pigs.” A euphonic, infinitely rousing and tidy collection of tetrameters, it says less about the doomed Harrison and eventual President John Tyler than it does about the incumbent Martin Van Buren, whom it lampoons as “little Van, Van, Van, Van,” the “used up man.” Poor Van Buren, meanwhile, was stuck with “Rock-a-bye Baby.”

“The Battle Cry of Freedom”

George Frederick Root, 1862

An object lesson in internecine warfare carried over to sheet music and song interpretation taken to its natural extremes, “The Battle Cry for Freedom” began as a Union ditty and campaign song for the Lincoln-Johnson ticket, only to fall into the hands of the Confederacy, which adapted the lyrics “The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah! Down with the traitors, and up with the star” to read “Our Dixie forever! She’s never at a loss!/Down with the eagle and up with the cross.” One-hundred-and-fifty years later, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about; the song is a jingoistic and ubiquitous sub-Star Spangled Banner (which would have to wait for Hoover to attain anthem status) even as performed by the likes of Ry Cooder and Elvis Costello, who already had God’s perfect anti-war song in “Oliver’s Army.”

“John Brown’s Body”

Anonymous, 1859

Deemed coarse and irreverent by the prevailing powers of 1861, few songs in American history have gone through so many permutations as “John Brown’s Body.” Built around the tune of “Glory, Hallelujah,” it would appear to be an ode to the insurrectionist behind Bleeding Kansas. It isn’t! Instead, the song emerged as a lark at the expense of a Švejk-like private of the same name serving in the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia:

We had a jovial Scotchman in the battalion, named John Brown . . . and as he happened to bear the identical name of the old hero of Harper’s Ferry, he became at once the butt of his comrades. If he made his appearance a few minutes late among the working squad, or was a little tardy in falling into the company line, he was sure to be greeted with such expressions as “Come, old fellow, you ought to be at it if you are going to help us free the slaves.”

None of this prevented an enormous squabble over the song’s authorship that would rage well into the twentieth century, whereupon the tune quickly became untethered from its bizarre origins as a football chorale, a Sinhalese cricket shout, and a sea shanty.

“Harding, You’re the Man For Us”

Al Jolson, 1920

Popular blackface performer Al Jolson inaugurated the mercifully brief era of the home-brewed campaign song in 1920 with “Harding, You’re the Man For Us,” which is even worse than it sounds: “A Man Who’ll Make the White House/ Shine out like a lighthouse/ And Mr. Harding, we’ve selected you/ So it’s Haaaaaarding/ Lead the GOP/ Haaaaarding/ On to Victory,” and so on. It sounds like something that would show up as part of the Country Bear Jamboree: knee slaps, musical jars, and singin’ saws heavily implied. Thirteen years later, FDR would go back to the drawing board with the well-established “Happy Days Are Here Again” from the 1930 flick Chasing Rainbows with Jack Benny, the successor to Jolson’s act as the prevailing antic vaudevillian numb-nuts of the day.

“I’m Just Wild About Harry”

Eubie Blake, 1948

Perfectly charming if you can forget that it was lifted wholesale from the all-black musical Shuffle Along. Variously sung as a Viennese waltz, a foxtrot, and—courtesy of Judy Garland—a minstrel tune, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was written by Broadway duo Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake in 1921 as a profession of love between African Americans, something that had been forbidden on stage up to that point. But by the time the Truman campaign appropriated it in 1948, it had transformed into a tame standard that led the Republican opposition to snark, “I’m just mild about Harry.”

“Hello Lyndon”

Carol Channing, 1964

Your worst fears are realized: that’s Louis Armstrong’s hit “Hello, Dolly!” mutilated into a ham-fisted advertisement for Lyndon Johnson and sung by Carol Channing at the Democratic Convention. There’s no excuse for this kind of travesty in 1964, by which time rock and roll could have donated “Yakety Yak,” “Splish Splash,” or “Tutti Frutti.”[*] Instead it was the protesters against the war in Vietnam that patented the groovy political single (see Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie, and San Francisco group the Red Star Singers and their prophetic classic, the Smithsonian-inducted “Vietnam Will Win”); instead, it was in the tall rhyme that the Johnson campaign soared, answering Barry Goldwater’s mangled off-center slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right” with “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

“Nixon’s the One”

The Vic Caesar Orchestra Chorus, 1968

Yes, but one what? The lack of specificity in this saccharine, overwrought, faux-blues number is troubling; it’s unclear if the musicians, the Vic Caesar Orchestra even supported Nixon, since you can be “the one” to do lots of things, like botch a burglary. Since Nixon’s only lasting contribution to the arts was his spoken-word basement tapes, “Nixon’s the One” winds up a pretty forgettable hymn to Tricky Dick that only deserves a mention because it was co-written by a composer with the Pynchonian name of Moose Barlap, famous for the musical version of Peter Pan. It took Nixon’s 1972 challenger George McGovern to finally tap the swelling reserve of hippie reveries with Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The song’s title wasn’t a reference to either Barry Goldwater or Watergate, which places it firmly in the realm of cosmic irony alongside Gerald Ford’s characteristically clumsy choice of “I’m Feeling Good About America” as his musical platform opposite Jimmy Carter’s no-kidding folksong “Ode to the Georgian Farmer.”

“Gonna Fly Now”

Bill Conti, 1976

It’s the Rocky theme! Walter Mondale wouldn’t be the first or last to gird his loins with Bill Conti’s legendary gym-rat pump-up, and there’s not much to say about Mondale’s questionable choice to use it on the 1984 campaign trail, except to state the obvious: if the history of the campaign song is a litany of self-fulfilling victories and failures, Mondale couldn’t do better than the story of a dark horse who rises to prominence by challenging an unstoppable adversary—and loses. As an odd postscript, Carl Weathers—Apollo Creed himself—would later announce his candidacy for office on a spoof segment on SNL, following Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful runs for governor, on the basis that “he was the black guy in Predator.”

“This Land Is Your Land”

Woody Guthrie, 1951

In the history of perversions of intent by political entities, no transgression ranks higher than George Bush I’s cold-blooded hijacking of socialist folksinger Woody Guthrie’s gorgeous rejoinder to Irving Berlin’s bullshit “God Bless America.” With the 1988 advent of the epoch of Iran-Contra, “Welfare Queens,” and the War on Drugs, the U.S. presidential campaign’s propaganda contest morphed into the ugly battle of the bands that it is today. Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis snatched up “America,” Neil Diamond’s paean to immigration which, in an even darker turn, would be declared inappropriate for airplay by Clear Channel in the wake of the September 11 attacks. As for Woody Guthrie, he at least attained a secret, posthumous revenge, with the unrecorded “Black Bear Went Up the Mountain,” in which the GOP is born from the anus of the titular caniform. Sadly, the song is only available as a sought-after bootleg, played not by Guthrie but as an encore by Guthrie’s successor Billy Bragg during his Mermaid Avenue tour.

“Dole Man”

Sam Moore, 1996

In “Dole Man”—a sub-Yankovic pastiche of Isaac Hayes’ and Dave Porter’s “Soul Man”—we hit a genuine quandary: can the reptilian, wretched pilfering of a civil rights movement-inspired standby by Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign be enjoyed despite the enormous lapse in integrity thereof? Because, and this is hard to admit, “Dole Man” is pretty funny. The song was made famous by singer Dave Moore of Sam and Dave, who enthusiastically recorded “Dole Man” for the Kansas senator, prompting one critic to remark, “Connecting Bob Dole to ‘Soul Man’ is like connecting [mass murderer] Jeffrey Dahmer to ‘Feelings.’” Still, the seventy-three-year-old Dole milked “Dole Man” for all it was worth, as he dismally grooved to it onstage, while the audience sang along at a succession of campaign stops. It’s hilarious. As you would expect, Hayes and Porter were mortified, and label Randor Music, who held the rights, threatened legal action. Dole dropped the song after Hayes, an honorary king of Ghana since 1992 and literally the last person you’d want to fuck with, made his displeasure known.

“Praise You”

Fatboy Slim, 1999

By the time the 2000 election rolled around, the campaign song had moved definitively from a novelty to a premeditated strategy, with George W. Bush tapping the catchy and always inspiring “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, which would be followed in 2004 by Van Halen’s “Right Now” with the blessings of Sammy Hagar. Al Gore’s campaign, meanwhile, had an image problem with its famously stiff and pop culture-impaired candidate. Enter Fatboy Slim and “Praise You.” (If you need a refresher, this isn’t the one Christopher Walken famously soft-shoed to, but the one that samples, this being simpler times, the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids theme). In a case of overkill, the Gore campaign also took advantage of “Let the Day Begin” by new wave band The Call, probably still most famous for writing the song “I Still Believe” for the eighties vampire movie The Lost Boys. But the question isn’t whether Al Gore’s desperate attempts to woo the children made any hay in the end—rather the question is what did Ralph Nader do to Moby, who by all rights should have been the Green Party’s poster boy in 2000? Instead, the premiere techno-breakthrough musician got uncharacteristically spiteful, writing on his blog that “If Bush wins, I will follow Ralph Nader to the ends of the earth just to scream at him and pelt him with rotten tomatoes” and “Nader and his supporters will be happy as women start dying of back-alley abortions, and I hope that Nader and his supporters will jump for joy as our national parks become oil fields, and as we return to the ‘good old days’ of Reagan style national debt, and as our public schools crumble and as the working poor watch any dreams of prosperity just disappear as our inner-cities become the burnt out shit holes that they were under Reagan and poppa Bush.” Again, you don’t say!

“No Surrender”

Bruce Springsteen, 1984

There’s a scene in Berlin Alexanderplatz where the local socialist barflies get in a song contest with fascist stooge Franz Biberkopf, singing “The Internationale” opposite Biberkopf’s drunken rendition of the uber-patriotic number “The Watch of the Rhine.” If this happened today, both sides might be howling Bruce Springsteen songs, so regularly is The Boss trumpeted by Republican and Democrat alike. One of the few times Springsteen condescended to support his song’s use by a presidential challenger was in 2004, when John Kerry used the then-otherwise-obscure “No Surrender” from Born in the U.S.A., causing the song to chart. Sadly, the Kerry bump doesn’t apply to his other campaign song, U2’s “Beautiful Day,” which remains one of the most irritatingly upbeat songs ever recorded.

“Rudie Can’t Fail”

The Clash, 1979

Joe Strummer, fortunately, was six years in the ground when Rudy Giuliani began using The Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail” in public during the 2008 primaries, clearly numb to the fact that the restlessly, radically leftist punk band was at best an awkward fit. The song, which invokes the history of Jamaican independence and the early days of reggae, survived its misappropriation by a candidate whose name happened to be Rudy and who, of course, failed spectacularly, and yet The Clash remains arguably the best band to be so ignominiously transmogrified into rapacious sloganeering for the primary season—something of a low bar opposite contenders like John Edwards (John Mellencamp), John McCain (ABBA), and Mike Huckabee (Boston).

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”

Stevie Wonder, 1970

It will surprise nobody that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign had the smoothest repertoire of campaign songs, usually (for a change) with the cooperation of the artists. At different times, Obama got in front of Ben Harper, Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, and will.i.am (nobody’s perfect). But “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder deserves special mention, because no other song so captures the trajectory of American blackness in the giddy days of Obama’s electoral victory. Wonder, who would receive the Gershwin Prize for lifetime achievement in popular music from the president in 2009, performed the song on the final night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. What’s more, it was reportedly David Axelrod’s ringtone for personal calls from his candidate. While previous campaign songs would prove of only passing effervescence with regard to a given candidate—like Mitt Romney’s ridiculous and pandering use of Kid Rock’s “Born Free”—after which they would return to classic rock radio unharmed, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” became so strongly associated with the Obamas that it remains regularly played after a speech from the forty-fourth president. This identification speaks to a new life for the campaign song in general, as (pioneered by Clinton-Gore’s “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac) it becomes a Pavlovian echo, marrying the song and its political derivatization commercially, not unlike how Chili’s maintains a monopoly on “I Want My Baby Back” or the memorable use of “Pink Moon” in a 1999 Volkswagen commercial presaged a Nick Drake renaissance. This entails the end of the “personalized” or original campaign song, as cashing in on an existing hit, one already wedged somewhere in the American consciousness, becomes the standard operating procedure, as we saw in the 2016 election when the fray became crowded not just with potential nominees but also with reliable standbys like Simon Garfunkel, U2, and, alas, baiting and skullduggery in the form of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Trump Campaign. If only. But there was better, and worse, to come . . .

“Starman”

David Bowie, 1972

In the summer of 2016, the RNC House Band clanged through a lame cover of David Bowie’s ten-minute “Station to Station,” a song that captures him at his coke-fueled, Nazi-chic peak, prior to Donald Trump’s appearance on stage at the opening night of the Republican National Convention. On YouTube, you can watch the strange spectacle of Trump supporters milling about obliviously as the band sings “The return of the Thin White Duke/ Making sure white stains.” There’s no point (nor is it “the side-effects of the cocaine”) in wondering, in 2018, what had to happen to reality for this to occur, so bizarre is the juxtaposition, so empty of any sense of meaning or trace of irony. But being on-the-nose doesn’t make it any less sacrilegious in a year that began with Bowie’s death and ended with Trump ascendant. Fortunately, there is a remedy: the charming, tear-inducing use by Bernie Sanders of Bowie’s ever-hopeful, interplanetarily sublime “Starman.” While it’s definitely strange to make an anthem of the song’s tale of an alien messenger transmitting acoustic salvation to the planet’s hippie youth, its gentleness and semi-forlorn hope make for a high-water mark in the history of the campaign song, a category both maddening and fascinating in its illustration of how music both acquires and is denuded of meaning in the corrosive grasp of commercial politics. Yes, we will all grow old watching campaigns lay their withered hands on The Cure, Belle Sebastian, and the Butthole Surfers as they upgrade their inventory, but, in the end, the song remains the same. We may lose our cool-kid pedigree in the sands of time, watching as the music that once sustained us becomes mushy fodder for half-wit politicians, but nothing can take Bowie away from us. The world as we know it may be doomed, but the Starman is still waiting in the sky. Let all the children boogie.


[*]  Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly noted that“Hail to the Chief” was set to music to commemorate the end of the War of 1812 for George Washington. This was not the case, as Washington had passed away in 1799. The song was set to music to commemorate the memory of George Washington as well as the conclusion of the War of 1812.

[*]  Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Lyndon Johnson’s administration was mired in the panegyrics of total square Joseph McCarthy, which could not possibly have been the case because McCarthy had been dead for several years.

 

Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in VICE, BuzzFeed, The Culture Trip, the New York Times, and The Paris Review Daily.

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