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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Songs of Politics and Political Campaigns

Elections provide opportunities for advocates of policies for social change and those favoring social stability to advocate their particular cause. Campaign songs and songs of political parties can help to spread particular points of view and build solidarity around candidates and platforms.

"The Harrison Song," a campaign song for William Henry Harrison in 1840, is typical of many campaign songs, in that it both praises him as a "farmer," someone the voters can relate to, and as a great general in the War of 1812. "The Farmer of North Bend," takes the "everyman" image further, imagining Harrison, a farmer, knocking on the doors of the powerful in Washington, D.C. The most famous campaign song of this election was, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," by Alexander Coffman Ross. The title was also a Harrison campaign slogan, referring to the war experience of Harrison. As governor of Indiana Territory he won the Battle of Tippecanoe against the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. "Tyler" was Harrison's running mate, John Tyler.

The election of 1844 pitted two popular statesmen against one another, Henry Clay and James Polk. "As the Stream from the Mountain," extols the virtues of Clay as a truthful and honorable candidate. "Come All ye Whigs, So Gallant and True," provides the perspective of the opposing parties, with the Whigs accusing the Democrats of being "loco focos," or radicals. The election was close and turned on the question of annexing Texas to the United States, which Polk, the victor, favored.

Polk did not run again in 1848, but brought the war with Mexico to its close. The Whigs nominated a veteran of that war, Zachary Taylor, nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready." "The People's Choice," extols Taylor's achievements in The Mexican War.

Vote For the Right Man, by Emma A. Parker and Harry Jay, 1920. Select the link to view the sheet music.

Immigration to the United States from Europe swelled in the mid-1800s. "Few Days" (based on a popular song of the day) is a song from the Know Nothing Party, also called the Native American Party, of the 1850s, that wished to stop or greatly reduce immigration in order to favor native-born European Americans. The song expresses fear of "alien rule" that is an imagined consequence of this wave of immigration. "Thoughts for Americans," is a reply to the Know Nothings, favoring immigration as part of an American ideal.

The election of 1856 pitted Democrat James Buchanan against Republican John C. Frémont and former President Millard Fillmore representing the Know Nothing Party. "A National Song" praises Buchanan as a great hero and protector of the people. "Here's a Health to Freemont or Hurrah, for Freemont the Brave" [sic, Frémont] toasts Frémont as a defender of freedom of speech and writing, but perhaps also referencing his stand against the expansion of slavery. A German American song, "Freiheitslied der Deutschen republikaner," more explicitly praises Frémont's record on the slavery issue, as German Americans were generally opposed to slavery.

The election of 1864 pitted the incumbant Abraham Lincoln against George B. McClellan. John C. Frémont also briefly ran in this campaign, but later withdrew and supported the re-election of Lincoln. Songs in support of McClellan such as, "The Head of the Nation McClellan Shall Be," glorifed his military experience, while campaigning for a speedy end to the Civil War. Songs in support of Lincoln, such as "Abraham the Great and General Grant His Mate," which included the refrain "Freedom in the South is plainly dawning," anticipated a Northern victory in the Civil War and capitalized on the popularity of General Grant, partly to court the votes of soldiers. (Lincoln's running mate was Andrew Johnson, so this song makes a connection with Grant unrelated to the party ticket.) Songs such as "Abraham's Tea Party," "Abraham" Our Abraham!" and "Campaign Song for President Lincoln," combined support for the war effort with the re-election of Lincoln.

Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of President Lincoln, inherited a nation shattered by war. His policies were not popular, the Republican Party repudiated him, and the House of Representatives impeached him. Though the Senate acquitted him, the confidence of the people was lost. The song "Ye Tailor Man," by E.W. Foster, celebrates the 1868 election when the "tailor," Johnson, would be removed from office. It also looks forward to better policies towards the "freedmen," former slaves.

The campaign songs for Ulysses S. Grant's second term, "Grant Boys of 72," "Shout Then for Liberty and Union," "Grant's Our Banner Man," and the "Grant Campaign Song," all evoke sentiments of the Union victory and the ongoing job of creating a peaceful and united nation.

Grant's administration of office was marred by government corruption scandals and the problems of the post-war Reconstruction, which all the candidates in 1872 pledged to address. The Samuel Tilden campaign song, "National Reform," is based on the candidate's reputation for fighting government corruption as governor of New York. The Rutherford B. Hayes campaign song, "Humbug Reform," describes the Tilden's call for national reform as a comical farce, with the added caution that disaster might follow a Democratic victory. Tilden won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote in a highly contested election. The dilemma for voters caused by the 1876 campaign is summed up in a comic song that is easy to relate to in the present day. A satyrical song about the election, "Who Shall Be the Man?" includes Peter Cooper of the newly formed Greenback Party along with the Republican and Democratic candidates and the stir caused by the close election.

In the nineteenth century, an ongoing national debate on economic policies framed several elections. Songs were used to promote ideas of "bimetalism," silver and gold together as the basis of United States currency, or the "gold standard," using gold alone. Arguments concerned whether the inflation caused by basing currency on silver would be good for the economy or would cause instability. To promote these different economic views, songs presented slogans and arguments for one standard or the other, framing them in concepts that voters could understand. During the presidential campaign of 1896, for example, "Dad's Old Silver Dollar Is Good Enough for Me," promoted silver and the bimetalist position of candidate William Jennings Bryan; while "Upon a Cross of Gold," another song in support of Bryan, turned to song a quote from his speech predicting that the gold standard would be a "cross of gold." "The Farmer's Dream," a song in support of candidate William McKinley, predicted that inflation caused by a standard including silver would be disastrous for average American workers as represented by the farmer.

"Triplicity, or the Donkey, Moose, or Elephant," by L. Mae Felker and H. S. Gilette. A song for the presidential campaign for Theodore Roosevelt, 1912.

Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine fought a close political battle for the presidency in 1884. The song "His Name is James G. Blaine" depicted Blaine as the more experinced candidate. Cleveland ran a campaign against corruption in government. Blaine had been accused of financial corruption, and during the campaign evidence suggesting that he had tried to cover up some of his financial dealings surfaced, leading to his defeat. "The Candidate's a Dodger," as performed by Emma Dusenbury, is a song that began its life as an accusation of Blaine's corruption.[1] It probably survives because the lyrics have been adapted to become a general song about human foibles. The versions that we know today probably trace back to two ethnographic field recordings of Emma Dusenbury singing the song. Another campaign song designed to humiliate Blaine is found in the song "Mary Blaine."

In 1912 an unusual four-way race for president developed, pitting the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt for the Progressive Party, and Socialist Eugene V. Debs. As often is true for incumbent presidents, a campaign song for Taft, "President Taft, He's All Right," extolled his deeds in office. Disappointed at not being able to challenge Taft as the Republican candidate, Roosevelt ran as a Progressive, with goals of social advancement such as those found in the song "Triplicity, or the Donkey, Moose, or Elephant," and "The Song of Armageddon," which explains a perceived failure of the Republican and Democratic parties. In spite of the vote being split four ways, Wilson won by a large margin.

As the incumbent in the 1916 presidential race, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on his record of keeping the United States out of World War I. A carefully mixed message is apparent in the song, "Stonewall Wilson." The sheet music cover shows Wilson mounted and in uniform, ready to fight, but the song praises his strength in keeping the United States at peace.

A number of attempts have been made to form a labor party in the United States. In 1866 the National Labor Union formed as a coalition of labor unions and social reformists that ran candidates in national elections until 1872. In 1919 local parties in Minnesota, Chicago, and Connecticut united to form the Labor Party of the United States (also known as the Farmer-Labor Party). "I'll Never Vote like Daddy Anymore," published in 1920 is a song promoting this new party. This party only survived for six years.

Even without a labor party, the goal of promoting candidates who would favor the interests of working Americans continued to be a goal of labor unions in many elections through the present day. In Franklin D. Roosevelt's first campaign for president, he pledged to work to improve labor conditions. His campaign was supported by union dollars, and he established a working relationship with John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He introduced legislation that supported the formation of unions. George Jones, a veteran of union battles prior to Roosevelt's election, sings a song praising the accomplishments of Lewis and Roosevelt in "This is What the Union Done."

Notes

  1. The song "The Candidate's a Dodger" lives on in many versions in addition to Vance Randolph's field recording of it performed by Emma Dusenbury in 1936. Another version, sung by Myra Pipkin in 1941, was recorded by Robert Sonkin and Charles L. Todd. She gives the title as "Corn Dodgers." An arrangement by composer Aaron Copeland published in 1950, and titled "The Dodger," performed by Thomas Hampson in 2010, is also available as a video in this presentation. The Emma Dusenbury version was probably Copeland's source for the song. Pete, Peggy, and Mike Seeger also performed "The Candidate's a Dodger" at their concert at Library of Congress in 2007 (available as an excerpt from the full concert webcast), and credited Emma Dusenbury as their source. . [back to article]
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