SONGSTUFF by Cary Ginell: The Beginnings of Political Songs in America, Part 2

During the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the tradition of political songs in American life became firmly established. Much of the focus of this musical expression centered on General George Washington, a heroic figure even during his lifetime. Sheet music, as we now recognize it, was not in great use since most citizens could not read music. Instead, single printed sheets with lyrics printed on them, called “broadsides,” were distributed. The songs were mostly sung to familiar melodies that everyone already knew, such as “Yankee Doodle” or “God Save the King.” After Washington’s inauguration in 1789, many such songs were written to celebrate America’s victory over the British and to pay tribute to its first president. The first song tied to a specific presidential event was titled “Chorus Sung Before Gen. Washington,” which was composed by Alexander Renegale, who was inspired to write it after seeing Washington pass under the Triumphal Arch raised on the bridge at Trenton on April 21, 1789.

Washington was the subject of hundreds of songs written during his lifetime as well as during the two hundred years since his death in 1799. The songs span the gamut of topics, including birthday tributes, marches, dance music, songs concerning specific events in Washington’s life (his crossing of the Delaware was a particularly popular topic), and sorrowful dirges following his passing. The familiar song “Hail Columbia” actually got its start as “The President’s March,” written in 1793 toward the end of Washington’s first term. The song became so popular that it was actually used as the unofficial U.S. national anthem for over a century.

The first contested presidential campaign occurred in 1792, and it wasn’t much of a contest. Washington was elected unanimously by the new Electoral College while a little over 13,000 popular votes were cast, less than a half-percent of the population (and you thought today’s voters were apathetic!). In those days, most electors were chosen by the state legislature so popular vote had little effect.

The only contentiousness in the election was over who would become the vice-president. Up until 1800, electors cast two votes, with the runner-up becoming the veep. Incumbent John Adams was re-elected, with New York governor George Clinton coming in third. Adams had relatively few songs composed about him but the most popular was “Adams and Liberty,” which wasn’t written until well into Adams’ own term as president, in 1798. The song was written by Revolutionary War laureate Thomas Paine, who wrote the song to the tune of an English drinking song called “Anacrean in Heaven.” This melody later became the basis for Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The two-party system was still developing in the early 1800s, but campaigns in the modern sense didn’t begin until 1828, an election that was fraught with mudslinging that would pale in comparison to today’s contentious political atmosphere.

Presidential campaign songs had little effect on elections until 1840, when, for the first time, singing was established as a powerful device in electing the President of the United States. I’ll have that story for you next month.

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