Carole Owens: Political songs from a happier age


STOCKBRIDGE >> It is akin to battle fatigue. We are war weary; we just want it over. In an effort to motivate the electorate, help everyone limp to the polls, here is inspiration from another age.

There really was a time in America when there was a choice not just the lesser of evils. These are the words of campaign songs that gave you someone to root for and something to vote for rather than vote against.

Our first president was lauded as a glorious leader in the following campaign song:

"God save great Washington

His worth, from every tongue,demands applause.

Ye tuneful powers combine

And each true Whig now join

Whose heart did never resign

The glorious cause."

The second president of the United States John Adams campaigned by remembering the beginnings of our country and calling on his fellow freedom fighters to support him:

"Ye sons of Columbia

Who bravely have fought for those rights

May you long taste the blessings your valor has bought

And your sons keep the soil your fathers defended

May your nation increase

With the glory of Rome and the wisdom of Greece

Never shall the sons of Columbia be slaves

While the land bears a plant or the sea rolls a wave."

The strategy was neither to instill fear of the future nor loathing for an opponent. In fact the opponent was rarely mentioned even when there was animosity.

Thomas Jefferson ran against Aaron Burr in 1800. It was one of just two presidential elections decided in the House of Representatives. (The other was Adams v. Jackson a quarter of a century later.) The men did not like each other yet his campaign song did not disparage Burr but was rousing in favor of Jefferson.

"The gloomy nights are no more

To tyrants never bend your knee

But join with heart and soul and voice

Jefferson and liberty

Chorus: Rejoice Columbia's sons rejoice"

These songs were intended to energize the voters; to make voters feel part of something worth being a part of. In short, campaigns adopted positive messages.

"There's right and wrong in parties and

The right is on our side

So we will mount the wagon boys

And let the nation ride.

The Union is our wagon

The people are its springs

And every true American

For Millard Fillmore sings."

For a wide swath of history the words were sung to familiar tunes. Sometimes a familiar song was adopted for a campaign. For example "I'm Just Wild About Harry" sung for Harry Truman with some of the lyrics changed or "High Hopes" with words tailored for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.

"Everyone wants to back Jack because Jack is on the right track. He's got high hopes."

In either case everyone knew the tunes and could immediately sing, or at least hum along.

You have heard "Hail to The Chief" a million times. Do you know the words?

"Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation.

Hail to the chief we salute him one and all.

Hail to the chief as we pledge cooperation

In proud fulfillment of a great and noble call

Yours is the aim to make the country grander

This you will do that's our strong firm belief

Hail to the chief selected as commander."

There you have it: America in a softer perhaps saner time. Never mind, buck up, it will soon be over. Or will it?

What if the deeper problem is: can we create a democracy in a plurality? What if a candidate attacking his own party as well as his opponent is not misstep but calculation? What if we are witnessing the birth of a new political party with a very different set of rules? What if this is the new American landscape and the new American polemic? The modern dialectic: as different from the words and sentiments quoted above as chalk from cheese?

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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