The campaign song loses its originality

Before former President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)” or the late Ronald Reagan’s “Born in the USA,” there was “Harding, You’re the Man for Us” and “Hayes the True and Wheeler, Too!”

American campaign songs haven’t always been rock-star ballads retrofitted to a politician’s election message.

There was a time when campaign songs were an art form, scripted with intent to influence the Election Day outcome — such as the ones above, written for Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Campaign songs of the past even put a melody to those nasty personal attacks we continue to see today.

Consider the 1964 song “Let’s Carry Barry to the White House,” written for then-GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The opening lines go straight for Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of Goldwater’s opponent, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Let’s carry Barry to the White House
And find Lady Bird a new nest


The modern-day equivalent might be Kanye West criticizing Cindy McCain’s hair in a rap or Daddy Yankee declaring Michelle Obama a Washington misfit over reggaeton beats.

The original campaign song was known to be hard-hitting and thought-provoking.

“People really wanted to think about the politics with the lyrics that were written,” the Library of Congress’s Denise Gallo says of the old-time political songs. Gallo is the curator of the library’s new exhibition, “Voices, Votes, Victory,” which features songs, lyrics and sheet music from campaigns dating back to the early 1900s.

The display runs through March.

Both the candidates and voters took these songs seriously, Gallo says. Campaigns would distribute songbooks or sheet music for their tunes, and the public would make an effort to learn them — not only to become informed, but also because they genuinely liked the songs.

“This music was also entertainment,” she says. “It served a dual purpose.”

A quick listen to a few songs confirms their jingle-like quality. They include easy melodies, infectious choruses, up-tempo rhythms and cute lyrics.

Al Jolson’s 1920 presidential campaign song, “Harding, You’re the Man for Us,” has an iambic likability to it:

So it’s Harding, lead the GOP
Harding, on to victory
We’re here to make a fuss
Warren Harding, you’re the man for us


The proposition put forward in Abe Holzman and Harry Kerr’s 1903 song “Get on a Raft with Taft” makes campaigning sound like an adventure not to be missed:

Get on a raft with Taft, boys
Get on the winning boat
The man worthwhile
With the friendly smile
Will get the honest vote


Somewhere along the way, though, the idea that a song composed for political purposes could also be entertaining got flipped. Nowadays, it seems, songs written to entertain become political.

Even though some original songs have been written for this year’s presidential race — John Rich’s “Raisin’ McCain,” The Violets’ ode to Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), among others — a more common practice for modern-day campaigns is to adopt a well-known hit.

Bill Clinton defined his presidential campaign with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow).” President Bush used Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” This year’s presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), have used various songs. Obama has campaigned to Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” while McCain has stridden out on the stage with Orleans’ “Still the One” in the background.

Where did the originality go? It gave way to marketing, says Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), one of Orleans’ original band members.

“You’re talking about a Pavlovian response,” he says, explaining that campaign songs, just like jingles for commercials, are rarely original anymore because experts find it more effective to connect candidates to pop songs people already know and like.

The easiest way “to make people feel good” about a candidate, Hall says, “is [to] take a song that makes people feel good.”

Both Hall and Gallo also wonder how time factors into campaign-song selection. Hall says he can’t imagine trying to find time amid his busy lawmaker schedule to sit down to write a campaign song. Gallo asks whether voters would pay attention to a new tune.

“Do we have time to learn a new song?” she says. “It takes time in your day to learn new lyrics.”

Time never used to be a problem. Voters used to await the election humming novel tunes about birds’ nests and rafting trips. Now we’re left singing the same old songs.