While campaign songs never make or break a candidate, they’ve played a part in almost every American presidential election. To give some background before delving into the topic at hand, here is an abbreviated history of the use of campaign songs in presidential elections.
1779: George Washington – “God Save Great Washington”
“God Save Great Washington” was written as it’s own song three years before Washington’s presidency and therefore not technically a campaign song. It was, however, used to rally support behind Washington and utilized up until his election and is therefore the first iteration of a campaign song as they’re understood today.
1824: Andrew Jackson – “The Hunters of Kentucky”
The first official campaign song, “The Hunters of Kentucky” commemorated Jackson’s victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans. ***This song is discussed in greater detail here.***
1896: William Jennings Bryan – “How it Happened (Or, The Jew of Lombard Street)”
Bryan’s campaign against William McKinley represented the beginning of the Progressive Era in American Politics, which emphasized candidates’ personalities. Like later periods, this one contained a number of campaigns that would use multiple songs to back a candidate. “How It Happened” was just one of Bryan’s songs that year, but is important in that it shows how blatant anti-Semitism was used as one of a few songs to describe his political personality.
1900: William McKinley – “Anti-Imperialism”
Having defeated Bryan in the previous election, McKinley’s image by 1900 had improved, but his focus had shifted. Running against Bryan again, the hot topic of the election had changed to Imperialism following the Spanish-American War. This patriotic (pro-war) song was commissioned but set to the tune of an existing song, “On The Banks of the Wabash”. That same year, Bryan commissioned a song called “America Has Sons to Crush Oppression” that was anti-war and set to the same exact tune.
1904: Teddy Roosevelt – “We Want Teddy Four Years More”
Roosevelt represented a new phase in the Progressive Era. His personality could not be matched by any other at the time and he was swarmed for requests to write his campaign songs. “We Want Teddy” is just one of a number of songs that supported his strong character and the outpouring of support that he received. Roosevelt represented a version of America that was nationally recognized and relatable.
1928: Al Smith – “Sidewalks of New York”
“Sidewalks of New York” was the first campaign song that wasn’t commissioned or written specifically for/about a candidate. Often considered a theme for New York City, the song was popular in the 1890’s and adopted by Smith’s campaign. By choosing “Sidewalks”, he was able to use an already well-known song and make his connection to New York clear.
1932: Franklin Roosevelt – “Row, Row, Row With Roosevelt”
Influenced by the image of his distant cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR commissioned this song for a variety of reasons. Not only did this song emulate previously commissioned songs for presidential candidates (including Teddy Roosevelt’s), it created an image of FDR that he could not otherwise create for himself. As mentioned previously, Teddy Roosevelt’s image was one of a strong, capable, and interesting American that would define what it means to be a true man. Having a disability was not a part of that image, but using songs like “Row” FDR was able to construct a version of himself that was as able as his predecessor.
1964: Lyndon Johnson – “Hello, Lyndon”
While not the first popular song rewritten for the purposes of a political campaign, “Hello, Lyndon” represents the first time politics and pop culture, as it’s understood today, collide. Johnson used the popularity of the musical “Hello, Dolly!” to boost his political appeal and, in turn, Louis Armstrong’s original rendition shot to the top of charts. The intertwining of political and commercial success mark the beginning of a new relationship between music and political campaigns.
1976: Jimmy Carter – “Ode to the Georgia Farmer”
While this song in and of itself was not significant, it marked the beginning of a brief period of hyper-Patriotism in campaign songs. Immediately following the Vietnam War, Jimmy Carter’s choice in campaign song represented a temporary shift away from popular music. Until Reagan’s run in 1984, songs like “Ode” and “I’m Feeling Good About America” would define the political music sphere and make appearances through the ’90s.
1984: Ronald Reagan – “Born in the USA”
This campaign was the first time that Springsteen’s music was used in a political campaign and marks a significant change in the relationship between politics and popular music. By this time, prewritten, popular music had been used in a few campaigns, but few that were as famous as “Born in the USA”. This election was the first time that a performer took issue with a candidate’s use of their music (publicly, at least), as Springsteen used his fame to declare his feelings about Reagan’s politics and incorrect use of his song. This event jumpstarted Springsteen’s political activism that would follow and was the first in a long line of Republican candidates that would be publicly remonstrated for their choice of campaign songs and the artists’ opposing political views.
2008: Barack Obama – “Yes We Can”
Since the ’80s, popular music and campaign songs became synonymous. “Yes We Can” signified a new version of a similar theme. Over 30 famous artists and actors came together in support of Barack Obama, taking advantage of their star power and the relatively new importance of social media. This same year was a serious call-back to the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt in a resurgence of personality politics. Each candidate had a number of songs that they believed would represent their personality to voters, and while this didn’t help his opponent, McCain, it certainly worked in Obama’s favor as a relatable candidate.