MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Last week, we played some homemade songs for you, songs about the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Well today, we're going to hear about a more professional effort. It's a new collection of songs, 43 of them to be exact, one for each of the 42 Americans who have served as president with one song to spare. Joel Rose has a report and a little quiz on the collection called "Of Great and Mortal Men."
JOEL ROSE: Most songs about American presidents are written about the wannabes, candidates on the campaign trail. But instead of writing about John McCain or Barack Obama, these songwriters studied up on past presidents, from the great to the not-so-great, like the 31st president. Two points if you guessed, Herbert Hoover.
(Soundbite of song "Woe Is a Spoon-Shaped Heart")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible) woke late and slipped into his bathrobe and set off to push his hands into the cracks and then...
Mr. CHRISTIAN KIEFER (Teacher and Songwriter, California): These are men who get up in the morning and shave or don't shave, and who have wives and families and fathers themselves, and who live lives that are as similar to our lives as they are different.
ROSE: Christian Kiefer makes his living as a teacher outside Sacramento, California. He's one of the three song writers behind "Of Great and Mortal Men." The trio started working on the project in February of 2006, when Kiefer's friend, song writer Jefferson Pitcher, floated the idea of writing about all of the presidents as part of an annual event for amateur musicians called February Album Writing Month.
Mr. JEFFERSON PITCHER (Songwriter): We laughed about it at first and then we realized this was actually a rather interesting way to examine American history. So what started maybe as something that we thought was kind of funny became pretty serious pretty quickly.
ROSE: Pitcher and Kiefer recruited a third songwriter, Matthew Gerken, and split up the presidents more or less evenly. They each drew a mix of the famous and the forgotten. For instance, Kiefer got Rutherford B. Hayes and Abraham Lincoln.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: Union, union, union, union, union is coming...
ROSE: Now quick, name the president right after Lincoln. Five points if you said Andrew Johnson.
(Soundbite of song "Was I Ever Alone?")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) As I sit among my friends in the south (unintelligible) almost as about to do destroy our economy so I take over. I feel I can't help some sway from the inside.
Mr. MATTHEW GERKEN (Songwriter): Writing some of those tunes about the presidents nobody has ever heard of was pretty liberating.
ROSE: Songwriter Matthew Gerken.
Mr. GERKEN: The pressure's off on those and you can just write something that's pretty interesting and it'll be informative to anybody.
ROSE: In some cases, their songs take unexpected twists. The one about William McKinley tries to get inside the mind of his assassin.
(Soundbite of song "Czolgosz's Dream")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Keep your pistol, keep your head cocked to the crowd. No grasshoppers, Spaniards, Cubans to be found.
ROSE: Ten points if you knew the assassin's name, Leon Czolgosz. Songwriters Kiefer, Pitcher and Gerken became so engrossed by presidential trivia that they didn't want to stop when February Album Writing Month was over. So they convinced a record label to release their songs. Kiefer says they invited their friends to contribute original artwork and play on the recordings.
Mr. KIEFER: We were a bit worried that the average listener out there might not be too excited about listening to three songwriters they had never heard of, singing songs about presidents for three hours and 20 minutes or however long this record is. That would be a hard sell for me.
ROSE: Such respected indie-rock performers as Califone, Smog and singer Alan Sparhawk from the band Low contributed to the project. Denison Witmer sings about Harry Truman.
(Soundbite of song "Suits And Fine Trousers Vs. Hiroshima")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Blue and wheeling down, blue and wheeling down under. Who was I thinking? Will I rot in hell?
ROSE: In the end, more than 50 musicians participated. Perhaps that's not surprising, according to folk musician and radio host Oscar Brand. He's recorded several albums of campaign songs, and says writing music about the presidents is a tradition as old as America itself.
Mr. OSCAR BRAND (Folk Musician, Radio Host): This country is a singing country. And where it comes to elections, there's no lack of these songs.
ROSE: But not all of those songs have passed the test of time. Brand says the songs on 'Of Great and Mortal Men' violate some of the most basic rules of political songwriting. For one thing, they don't use familiar tunes.
Mr. BRAND: For the most part, the most successful songs are the songs to which the audience does not have to know the story. They know the music, they don't have to know the story.
ROSE: For another thing, Brand says the most memorable campaign songs are blatantly partisan in nature. The songwriters on 'Of Great and Mortal Men' say they tried to keep their politics our of their songs, though Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher admit they weren't successful.
Mr. KIEFER: Jefferson leans leftward of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, just so you know. They're to the right of him on the political spectrum.
Mr. PITCHER: That's true. That's entirely true.
ROSE: Songwriter Matthew Gerken says the more recent presidents were especially challenging.
Mr. GERKEN: I don't have much of a stake in the big sugar tariff wars of the middle of the 19th century. And so it's pretty easy to be objective about that sort of thing. But you know, when you get in to the 80s, Reagan, Bush and so forth, it is definitely hard to distance yourself.
ROSE: Sometimes the solution was to laugh. Jimmy Carter gets abducted by aliens.
(Soundbite of song "A Great Beam of Light")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Goodbye. We thank you for your time here generously. We thank you for your wonderful foreign policy.
ROSE: The songwriters behind "Of Great and Mortal Men" hoped that history teachers will use the songs in the classroom as a way to think about history as a living text. Songwriter and former teacher Jefferson Pitcher noticed that many of his students ha an unhealthy attachment to Wikipedia.
Mr. PITCHER: It's problematic in some ways, but at the same time, I think we have a real potential to see a history that is written more by the people and less by those with the biggest guns. And so I personally thought that maybe this project would be a way to approach that history of the American presidencies in a totally different light.
ROSE: Five points if you can explain why it only took 42 men to make 43 presidents. You'll have to look that one up. As for the 44th, Jefferson Pitcher, Christian Kiefer and Matthew Gerken say they'll write one more song and post an MP3 sometime after November 4th. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.