A Brief History of Presidential Campaign Songs

The relationship between music and politics is as old as the United States.

An anonymous songwriter penned the tune “General Washington” about George Washington before he took office and composer Philip Phile wrote “Hail Columbia” for Washington while he was president. Subsequent presidential candidates would use songs in their campaigns that they’d also have played while they were in office. That personalized presidential anthem was halted in 1829 when “Hail to the Chief” became the official presidential anthem during the Andrew Jackson administration.

In the mid 20th century, campaigns began choosing songs to get voters enthusiastic about their candidates. Today, campaign songs are used to not only stir up emotions but to embody the candidate’s values.

The presidential contest of 1840 is sometimes referred to as the first modern presidential campaign. The so-called “log cabin and cider” campaign pitted incumbent vice president Martin Van Buren against war hero William Henry Harrison. Harrison, known as “Old Tippecanoe,” painted himself as a common man in contrast to establishment insider Van Buren. The Van Buren camp composed a song to the tune of the lullaby “Rockabye Baby,” containing such historic burns as: “Rock-a-bye, baby, when you awake/You will discover Tip is a fake/Far from the battle, war cry, and drum/He sits in his cabin a-drinking bad rum.” Unfortunately for him, Van Buren lost. And it wasn’t close.

The influence of campaign songs peaked in the mid-20th century. FDR’s 1932 campaign benefited from the 1929 tune “Happy Days are Here Again.” FDR carried that optimistic wave into the 1930s, but good economic times were far off. By 1948, though, America was in a boom period. Harry Truman, in a tough fight to win the 1948 presidential election, adopted the 1921 Broadway song “I’m Just Wild about Harry” as his own. Truman won. Four years later, Eisenhower hitched his star to Irving Berlin’s “They Like Ike,” from the Broadway show Call Me Madam, which Irving Berlin wrote before Eisenhower decided to run for president. The slogan “I Like Ike” helped Eisenhower win by a landslide in 1952.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the junior Senator from Massachusetts was heralded by two campaign songs. Frank Sinatra re-recorded his 1959 hit “High Hopes” with altered lyrics as a campaign song for Kennedy.

JFK’s television ads featured “Kennedy, Kennedy,” a jingle written for the campaign that Mad Men’s advertising professionals deemed “catchy, like it gets in your head and makes you want to blow your brains out.”

Kennedy’s Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon, ran on “Click With Dick,” a song rife with presumably accidental innuendo celebrating a dick that “can’t be licked” and “Button Down With Nixon.”

Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign was a masterpiece of marketing. Clinton’s song choice was “Don’t Stop,” an up-tempo, catchy track from the enormously popular 1977 Fleetwood Mac album, Rumours. The song was well-known before Clinton but perfectly summed up his campaign. “Don’t’ stop thinking about tomorrow,” the chorus chants. “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” In 1992, the song symbolized people wanting to move on from the Reagan era and the economic recession that plagued the Bush presidency.

The phrase “yesterday’s gone” also symbolized the rise of the Baby Boomers. Rumours was released at the height of the Me Decade. Things were groovy. The Vietnam War was over. It was pre-AIDS. And if Boomers weren’t doing cocaine or having group sex in the back of a disco, they were watching Star Wars or reading The Cult of Narcissism. In 1992, Clinton (born in 1946) was barely old enough to run for president. But he was a Boomer who remembered the 1970s well. The light and bouncy “Don’t Stop” was the perfect choice for him.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton picked a more contemporary song than her husband’s campaign’s classic rock staple: Rachel Platten’s 2015 ode to self-determination, “Fight Song.” The song was a fixture on the campaign trail and, after actress and filmmaker Elizabeth Banks filmed a celebrity cameo karaoke video of the song, inescapable online as well.

Unfortunately for Clinton, the song fell on a lot of deaf ears, from campaign reporters to, reportedly, Clinton’s campaign staff.The Ringer’s Claire McNear dismissed the song as “miserable garbage and unfit for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.” After the election, one Hillary fan blamed Clinton’s loss on the song.

In 2019, with an election 14 month away, candidates are scrambling to find the right song for the campaign trail. Some are better than others. Maryland Congressman John Delaney, the first Democrat to announce his candidacy, has chosen “I’ve Been Everywhere.” He’s used the mid-1990s Johnny Cash version, which was originally written by an Australian in 1959. In the song, Cash offers a machine gun-rapid inventory of all the places he’s been, from Reno, Chicago and Fargo, to Bangor, Baltimore and Amarillo. It’s a great song for a politician on the move and everyone loves Johnny Cash. But Delaney’s campaign seems to be going nowhere.

In a similar vein, Liz Warren has used the song “9 to 5” to get across how exhausting the road can be. Also, by picking a song written and sung by Dolly Parton, Warren can reinforce her “strong woman” message without pandering. If there’s a more likable person in country music history than Johnny Cash, it’s probably Dolly Parton. And given Warren’s issues with “likability,” “9 to 5” is a good song to campaign by.

Bernie Sanders has chosen John Lennon’s early 1970s anthem “Power to the People.” Lennon wrote that song in his White Panther period. Bernie’s more of a silver fox than a White Panther. But Lennon’s song makes sense for a socialist running on the slogan, “Not me. Us.”

Unfortunately for Republicans, good musicians tend to vote Democrat. Bruce Springsteen refused to let Ronald Reagan use “Born in the USA,” though Regan sailed to reelection in 1984. Tom Petty’s lawyers ordered George W. Bush to stop using “I Won’t Back Down,” though it didn’t stop “W” from winning either.

Donald Trump wouldn’t know a hip song if it jumped off of Cardi B’s Spotify playlist and punched him in his melted sherbet face. Even so, in 2016, Trump played The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at rallies without the Rolling Stones’ approval. It’s a classic tune, albeit overplayed, but it’s an odd song choice, given that the 1969 song is ambivalent as best and pessimistic at worst (just like “MAGA,” I guess). Trump, of course, ignored the Stones as well as other artists whose songs he used without permission.

A song can’t win an election for you. But using a good one doesn’t hurt.

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