Topical Songs 2: Singing for Votes

Steve Russell

If you missed "Topical Songs 1," click here.

The most obvious examples of topical songs with limited shelf lives are those focused on elections. The U.S. has been running political tunes up the flagpole every election since George Washington’s run for a second term, when a bit of doggerel set to a popular tune of the time urged “Follow Washington.”

Oscar Brand recorded an album for Folkways Smithsonian (heir to the Folkways label Moses Asch created and that exploded the folk music revival of the sixties) with all the presidential campaign songs back to back

The first election where the campaign song was the center of attention was 1840, when white men without property had been extended the right to vote even though many could not read. The song was a memory cue to the names and the candidate’s principal accomplishment.

William Henry Harrison took credit for the defeat of the pan-tribal revolt led by Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe. He took his nickname from that engagement and his campaign theme song reminded his illiterate supporters to cast a ballot for “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

“Tyler Too” referred to John Tyler, who became the first vice president in U.S. history to become president on the death of his running mate. “Old Tippecanoe” (as they called Harrison) may have been dragging along some bad karma.

Tecumseh was not present at the Battle of Tippecanoe and his brother Tenskwatawa, who was in charge, survived the defeat, but the Indian patriots had to withdraw when they ran out of ammunition. Tenskwatawa’s forces were greatly outnumbered, but the settler army took more casualties until the Indians had to back off. Unopposed then, Harrison’s forces burned the Shawnee coalition’s city to the ground and destroyed the supplies Tecumseh had stored for the winter. It was a blow from which the Indian resistance never recovered.

What remained of Tecumseh’s coalition took the British side in the War of 1812. Two years after Tippecanoe, General William Henry Harrison commanded the prevailing forces at the Battle of the Thames, and Tecumseh was killed in action.

On the strength of his Indian fighting, Harrison was elected President of the United States. He died on his thirty-second day in office, the shortest time any POTUS served before or since, and Tyler finished his term.

The history books say Harrison died from pneumonia contracted when he took two hours to read the longest inaugural address in U.S. history in a cold rain. Some Shawnees, to this day, have a differing opinion.

However it was that Old Tippecanoe perished, from his election to the present time, music has played a part in most political campaigns. Even those not important enough for a theme song often engage musicians to entertain supporters.

Bernie Sanders had one of the best campaign ads so far in 2016 soundtracked by Simon and Garfunkel:

Other Bernie backing musicians included Neil Young, Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Lucinda Williams.

Hillary Clinton could put on a concert with Usher, Common, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Jon Bon Jovi, Jennifer Lopez, and (now that Bernie can’t win) Willie Nelson.

The Donald Trump has Azealia Banks, Wayne Newton, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent.

Sanders, Clinton, and Trump would certainly have very different concerts.

Musicians are probably a lot more important on the local level, and I was blessed by some very talented people. If you haven’t heard of the Austin Lounge Lizards, that’s your loss.

My friend Bill Oliver picked his guitar for me whenever I had a contested election, and that’s the kind of thing a low dollar candidate remembers. I’m long out of the election game, but Bill’s still contributing songs to U.S. electoral skirmishes.

Last election, Bill put out a hilarious video called “It’s Obama’s Fault!” inspired by the tendency to blame this particular POTUS for, well, anything. 

(It’s Obama’s fault)

that Japanese tsunami

(It’s Obama’s fault)

You’ve got issues with your mommy

(It’s Obama’s fault)

This country is still racist

(It’s Obama’s fault)

The president’s still black

Bookending that song was Bill’s ditty about “Mitt Romney: The Candidate Nobody Wanted (Woof! Woof!).” The story of Romney’s dog Seamus taking a high speed road trip as luggage made a couple of columns for me and a whole silly season worth in The New York Times for Gail Collins, so naturally Bill could not resist it.

This stuff was funny when it was happening only in a graveyard humor sense. Romney is by all accounts a completely sane partisan of the class to which he was born, but he had to make deals with crazy people to get nominated. He might have gotten elected.

It’s possible to laugh more freely now, but with the advent of the perpetual news cycle, the public does not retain most of the news very long. When Bill Oliver and the Otter Space Band put out an album called Rockin’ the Republicans: Songs of Mass Destruction, they may have asked too much of the public attention span.

The album even goes back another election cycle to comment on John McCain’s VP choice, but Sarah Palin is doing her best to remain a public figure. She appears with a tune borrowed from The Beatles as “Bridge to Nowhere Ma’am”:

Nowhere ma’am, admit it

You were for it before you were agin’ it

Nowhere ma’am, those federal funds

Flow thru your hands

She’s the anti-Hillary

Has her own artillery

Wants more offshore drillery

Than Hillary….

Back still farther, from after the second President Bush attacked Iraq under false pretenses and there was talk of impeachment, Bill had a song that cautioned people about the downside of losing President Bush. “Impeach Cheney First.”

Rockin’ the Republicans goes all the way back to Ronald Reagan. That’s way past the shelf life of a topical song, like Tom Paxton’s song from the Reagan years, “You Can Eat Dog Food.” There were news stories then about elders eating pet food of necessity, and Tom used to claim that he offered the song to Reagan for a campaign theme---but he never heard back.

Since then, we’ve gotten Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform,” so it’s not news if we have to feed kids pet food, but it could have been worse if President Bush (or McCain or Romney) had privatized Social Security to make work for investment bankers at the expense of elders.

The current craziness in politics does get some play. There’s a paean to the clerk who wouldn’t work in Morehead, Kentucky who thought so much of traditional marriage that she did it four times.

Bill borrowed a Roy Orbison tune for “Drump Trump/Running Scared.” When I looked for this on line, I came up empty. Bill explained that it wouldn’t work to Google “dump Trump,” because that domain was taken long ago. That’s how he wound up with “Drump Trump.” It won’t do to get lost in cyberspace.

House Speaker and former VP candidate Paul Ryan gets his favorite outdoor sport recognized in “He’s a Noodler”:

He’ll noodle for the upper class

Their taxes he’ll forget

He’ll noodle poor entitlements

He don’t need safety nets

He’ll noodle with your Medicare

Noodle your right to choose

Noodlin’ is a brutal sport

The ones on the bottom lose

The eponym of the album, “Rockin’ the Republicans,” was written by Rich Minus, and Bill Oliver did the wacky improvisation, telling the story of a Democrat musician who is offered a paying gig at the George W. Bush White House—and it’s all down hill from there.

I don’t know how real the story is, but the part about the POTUS sitting in on a guitar that was not plugged in is historical fact.

On cdbaby, where independent musicians take their tunes, they call this “humorous political folk rock.” Songs directed to elections seem to me defensive in nature, and humor is the best defense.

The earliest election songs were all on offense, but as the candidates got nastier, it became necessary to return fire. It’s easy to make jokes from election news. Do we really think Benghazi needs more investigation than Pearl Harbor? Can the Republicans get their presumptive nominee to step back from the Twitter machine before he shoots all the GOP candidates in both feet (having ventilated both his feet long ago)?

Election songs, like Civil Rights Movement songs, are war songs. When somebody wins and somebody loses, the war dies down. Most of the songs are placed back in the songsmith’s arsenal and only get played when the troops gather to talk about old times.

In part 3, we’ll look at some songs of the Indian wars. They may be topical when composed, but I suggest they have a bit more staying power even though they start with a smaller audience.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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