Songs Along The Campaign Trail

Classical music historian Robert Greenberg speaks with host Liane Hansen about historic campaign songs. Music and politics have been intertwined in the United States since the 1800s when President Thomas Jefferson and President John Quincy Adams were in office.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Campaign ads are one way to get the message out. Political songs are another. Even America's founding fathers used music to promote their political agenda. Weekend Edition's classical music commentator Robert Greenberg joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco to take a closer listen to politics in song. Welcome back to the show.

Dr. ROBERT GREENBERG (Music historian, San Francisco Performances): Always great to be here.

HANSEN: Before we get to hear some of these campaign songs, I'm intrigued by a word you use to describe them, contrafacta. What does that mean?

Dr. GREENBERG: Isn't that a great word?

HANSEN: It's a great word.

Dr. GREENBERG: Yeah, a contrafacta is a preexisting and ostensibly a well-known melody that has been fitted out with new words. The advantage of using contrafactas for things like campaign songs is that people already know the melodies.

HANSEN: We're going to go way back in history and listen to a John Adams campaign song. It's called "Adams and Liberty."

(Soundbite of song "Adams and Liberty")

Mr. OSCAR BRAND: (Singing) And ne'er shall the sons of Columbia be slaves. While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls a wave.

HANSEN: I feel like I should be standing with my baseball cap off over my heart. That sounds like "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Dr. GREENBERG: It's an English drinking song written in London during the 1760s by someone named John Stafford Smith. But of course as a melody it gained much greater fame in 1814 when it was hooked up with words by Francis Scott Key to become, yes, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

HANSEN: I'll give Oscar Brand some credit for performing it there. Let's talk a little bit about some lyrics. I mean, these songs were not just catchy tunes. I believe in Thomas Jefferson's campaign song, "Jefferson and Liberty," there's actually a policy reference?

Dr. GREENBERG: Yeah. Thomas Jefferson's campaign song refers quite directly to the Alien and Sedition Acts that had been passed by Adams, that he, Jefferson, almost immediately repealed. Collectively, these acts are referred to in the song as "the reign of terror."

(Soundbite of song "Jefferson and Liberty")

Unidentified Singer #1: The gloomy night before us flies. The reign of terror now is o'er. No gags, inquisitors and spies...

HANSEN: That's dangerously close to mud slinging there. Do you think - do campaign songs stay polite for the most part?

Dr. GREENBERG: Oh, of course not. And why should they? By far, the most mud that was slung that I could find was a Martin Van Buren campaign song set to "Rockabye, Baby." It's a song that attacks - I mean, brutally attacks Van Buren's opponents, the Whig Party and its candidate, William Henry Harrison, who'd been the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. The words are absolutely hysterical.

(Soundbite of song "Rockabye, Baby")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Rockabye, baby. Daddy's a Whig. When he comes home, hard cider he'll swig. When he has swug, he'll fall in a stu. And down will come Tyler and Tippecanoe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And I don't think I've ever heard the word swug before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GREENBERG: Or stu, as in stupor, I assume.

HANSEN: Yeah. Wow. That is nasty, huh?

Dr. GREENBERG: Yeah, it just keeps getting nastier and nastier. I love it.

HANSEN: The next one you have should sound familiar.

(Soundbite of song "Hello, Lyndon')

Unidentified Singer #2: Hello, Lyndon. Well, hello, Lyndon. We'd be proud to have you back where you belong...

HANSEN: Oh, my goodness. There's a tune to dance to, huh?

Dr. GREENBERG: "Hello, Dolly" opened up on Broadway in January of '64. And of course the election, the '64 election, was but months away. So Jerry Herman himself wrote these new words for "Hello, Lyndon." And Carol Channing, the star of the show, herself introduced the song during the '64 campaign.

HANSEN: We're right in the middle of a presidential campaign now in a trend where candidates tend to pick already existing music and they just play it as is. What do you think about the music in this campaign?

Dr. GREENBERG: You know, sometimes we do rightly wish for the good old days. It's like a pro-wrestling match now. As each wrestler comes out towards the ring, they play whatever their theme song is, in the background, but without any personalization. I would hope that someone steps forward and writes just that right sort of song for both of our candidates so that we have something to listen to and talk about in another 15 years.

HANSEN: Music historian Robert Greenberg. He's with San Francisco Performances and the Teaching Company, which markets its recorded lectures in the arts and sciences. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. As always, Robert, thanks a lot.

Dr. GREENBERG: My great pleasure.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: