With Liberty And Music For All

From "The Hunters Of Kentucky" to "Yes We Can" and "Born Free," music continues to play an integral role in presidential campaigns
  • Photo: Fotonoticias/WireImage.com
    will.i.am
  • Photo: Larry Marano/WireImage.com
    Barack Obama
  • Photo: Jim Rogash/WireImage.com
    Mitt Romney
  • Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
    Dolly Parton
  • Photo: Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
    Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • Photo: Allen Kee/WireImage.com
    John McCain
  • Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images
    Kid Rock
October 18, 2012 -- 5:00 am PDT
By Paul Grein / GRAMMY.com

(The following is a feature from "The Music And Politics Issue" of GRAMMY magazine.)

Songs have been part of U.S. presidential campaigns since long before the advent of recording. A little ditty titled "The Hunters Of Kentucky" was played at Andrew Jackson's rallies in 1824 and 1828. "Tippecanoe And Tyler Too," a song based on what may be the catchiest campaign slogan ever, was played at William Henry Harrison's rallies in 1840.

The most successful campaign songs project a sense of optimism. Franklin D. Roosevelt used the rousing 1930 hit "Happy Days Are Here Again" in his 1932 campaign. In 1960 John F. Kennedy used Frank Sinatra's buoyant 1959 hit "High Hopes." Bill Clinton tapped Fleetwood Mac's forward-thinking 1977 hit "Don’t Stop" to help carry his message in 1992. 

Some songs work so well that they become closely identified with the party through multiple election cycles. "Happy Days Are Here Again" has long been considered the unofficial anthem for the Democratic Party. Lee Greenwood's unabashed flag-waver "God Bless The USA" has come to hold a similar spot in the hearts of Republicans.

It helps when songs resonate with the candidate's personal history. Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, used Neil Diamond's melting pot anthem "America" in his 1988 campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long been a feminist icon, played Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers' "American Girl" and Dolly Parton's "9 To 5" during her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination. (Neither candidate became president, though you can't fault the music choices.)

Self-deprecating humor can be disarming — though not necessarily vote-getting. In 1992 H. Ross Perot tweaked his erratic image by adopting Patsy Cline's 1961 classic "Crazy." 

Some songs are selected because they happen to feature the candidate's name. In 1948 Harry Truman used "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Al Gore made use of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" in 2000.

Other songs are applicable because they celebrate the candidate's home state. In 1928 New York Gov. Al Smith used the 1895 song "The Sidewalks Of New York." In 1980 former California Gov. Ronald Reagan used the rousing "California, Here I Come!"

Some presidential campaigns have featured reworked versions of familiar hits, with varying effectiveness. Sinatra re-recorded "High Hopes" with lyrics about Kennedy ("Everyone wants to back Jack/Jack is on the right track"). Given how close the 1960 election was and what a towering star Sinatra was at the time, this sprightly jingle may have affected the outcome. Four years later, Lyndon Johnson's campaign team used "Hello, Lyndon!," a parody of the title song from that year's blockbuster musical, "Hello, Dolly!" (Ed Ames, then co-starring on TV's "Daniel Boone," recorded the song.) In 1996 Bob Dole's team changed Sam & Dave's R&B classic "Soul Man" to "Dole Man," an idea that was just, well, bananas.

Some songs have been used by candidates of both major parties. In 2004 George W. Bush used Brooks & Dunn's spirited 2001 hit "Only In America." Four years later, Barack Obama used the same song. In 2008 John Edwards and John McCain both used John Mellencamp's heartfelt 2006 song "Our Country."

Candidates don't need the artist's permission to play a song at rallies (provided they pay the requisite licenses), but it's always a good idea. In 2000 Petty threatened to sue Bush when his campaign used the singer's 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down." Eight years later, Tom Scholz asked Mike Huckabee to stop using Boston's 1976 hit "More Than A Feeling." This year, Silversun Pickups balked at Mitt Romney using their 2009 song "Panic Switch." Romney had better luck with Kid Rock, who allowed the campaign to play his anthemic 2010 song "Born Free."

In recent decades, candidates have generally utilized established hits, but some have incorporated original songs into their campaigns. In 2008 will.i.am crafted "Yes We Can" for Obama, building the piece around the candidate's spoken remarks. Such stars as John Legend, Herbie Hancock and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared in the video. That same year, country star John Rich wrote the feisty "Raisin' McCain" for the GOP nominee. He cleverly capped the video by intoning "I'm John Rich and I approve this message."

Sometimes, uses of songs have long-term benefits for the songwriters and artists involved. Smith's 1928 campaign brought "The Sidewalks Of New York" out of obscurity and back to prominence. A recording by Nat Shilkret & The Victor Orchestra became a national hit that year. In 1949, one year after the Truman campaign revived the 1921 song "I'm Just Wild About Harry," Al Jolson included the song in his hit movie Jolson Sings Again. Fleetwood Mac had splintered by 1992 when Clinton used "Don't Stop," but reunited (at the president elect's request) to perform at his 1993 inaugural gala. Fleetwood Mac certainly didn't stop as that high-profile gig ultimately led to a reunion in 1997 and additional albums and tours.

While the political forecast is unknown as our nation moves into the next four years and beyond, it's safe to say music will continue to bring high hopes to candidates and voters alike.

(Paul Grein, a veteran music journalist based in Los Angeles, writes the weekly Chart Watch column for Yahoo.com.) 

Email Newsletter

Similar Photos