Politics As Usual

The Political and Campaign Song In American Music


This month marks another of America's major election years. Though not a Presidential election, there are many Federal, State and local governmental positions up for grabs including Governors, Senators and Representatives. Since the inception of politics it seems that musical sentiments were an important way of conveying messages about the candidate or issue at hand. Though in today's mass media system, songs play a small role, if any at all, we must remember that before there was TV, before radio, songs were one form of mass media in America. The broad publication and distribution of songs through newspapers and the sheet music industry allowed the spin meisters of days gone by to get messages across to the public in a way that was quite effective.


In our issue about music in advertising, we discussed the value of a good jingle. Most of us know from our own experience how a good song or jingle can get stuck in your head, sometimes to the point of insanity. A speech we don;t remember; a good song, we remember and spread around. Politicians and their campaigners have long recognized the value of a good song to cement a message about a candidate in the public's mind and the result is a long history of political songs in America.

The New Grove dictionary of American Music says;

"While much of American political music has roots in traditional song and balladry, the category includes many other kinds of music from electoral songs of the 1730's to punk rock protests of the 1980's. Political music belongs to no one form nor does it fall entirely into any one category of popular, traditional or art music. Music is said to be political when its lyrics or melody evoke or reflect a political judgment in the listener."


With that said, the existence of political music extends far beyond the obvious. Much in music, especially since the 60's is political in nature. Listen to the lyrics of songs since then and you will realize that the political biases of the composer and lyricist are often included . As such, political messages are contained in much more of our music than we might like to admit.


Regardless, even songs that are today considered nursery rhymes started life as a political commentary or political allegories. The cursory rhyme songs, Who Killed Cock Robin and London Bridge is Falling Down as well as many other songs started their musical life as political songs. Later, we will see and hear one of these "children's" songs, Pop Goes The Weasel. Often these songs appeared in many forms as their simple yet memorable melodies allowed for easy conversion based on the issue of the day.


Come with us now as we explore music in politics and enjoy some of the greatest, and not so great, political songs in American history. As always, this issue is on two separate pages so don't miss page two of this issue.

Tip And Tye


Music by: "A Member of the Fifth Ward Club"
Lyrics by: "The Member"
Cover artist: Charles Lewis


Prior to the civil war era, political songs appeared in the mid 1700's in response to injustices and political issues. Songs were circulated that emphasized the struggle between classes, the Whigs and Tories and issues like the stamp act. The earliest known American election campaign song was God Save George Washington, issued in 1780 and sung to the tune of God Save The King. In fact, most political songs were based on already well known music and were often published in newspapers and broadsides with lyrics only and a "sung to the tune of" direction. See our July, '02 issue on political songs to hear an example, The Liberty Song from 1768. By the 1800's, election campaign songs had become more widespread but also much more influential.


The election of 1840 marked a watershed as in that year, the campaign song came of age with a series of songs in support of William Henry Harrison, America's 9th President (that's him on the cover, above) were published. One theme, Harrison's identity as the victor of the Battle of Tippicanoe predominated. In 1811, while Tecumsah was off in the South drumming up support for his pan Indian state, Harrison lead an army of US regulars and Kentucky and Indiana militia to attack Prophet's Town. Tecumsah's brother, the Prophet, came out to fight at Tippicanoe and lost. Harrison's name became synonymous with Tippicanoe and his running mate was John Tyler; hence the campaign slogan: "Tippicanoe and Tyler too". The most remembered song from this period was "Tip and Tye", based on the overall campaign theme. However, an entire series of songs were written on the subject by Harrison supporters and a collection of these songs appeared in The Tippicanoe Songbook published that same year. This song is quite brief, and is written in the old style of a solo verse and a chorus for quartet. It is quite simple but pleasant. Their Democratic opponent, Martin Van Buren is referred to simply as "Van" in the song. This song and the others like it are said to have had a sweeping effect on the outcome of the election, the first political campaign songs to have such impact. It is interesting to note that the writer of the song remained unidentified except for a club affiliation, perhaps to avoid problems at home or work for such a political statement.


Hear this early campaign song New feature! Print this sheet music(Scorch format)

listen to MIDI version




Pop Goes The Weasel



Music by: Eugene Raymond
Lyrics by: Raymond
Cover artist: unknown

While the campaign song was coming of age, the general political song; one that reflects political sentiments or commentary on an issue was also becoming a regular part of the American political scene. One song that most of us would not associate with politics is the childhood song we've all sung, Pop Goes The Weasel. This song is an example of one where a simple melody was used and reused numerous times to convey various political and social messages. The song has been published in so many different versions, it is hard to determine when and where and in what form the song originally appeared. Most accounts say it appeared sometime in the 17th or 18th century. One account says


regardless of provenance, the somewhat goofy but easy to remember melody and "pop" line makes the song a great one for use in humorous parodies of people, issues and politicians (which in my mind are different from people). The term weasel can be interpreted in a number of ways beyond the obvious association of a political to a weasel. The original possibly has it's origin in a 17th century version that had the lines:

“A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.”


Where the weasel referred to was a pressing iron used by tailors and hatmakers. The song's variation throughout history culminated in an orchestral version in 1938, by Lucien Cailliet, a French-American composer and arranger, who wrote a set of variations on the original tune.


This version is one published in 1856 to address a number of political and social issues. As can be seen, the result is a humorous look at several issues; the fleeting nature of success, the fickleness of voters, the results of life in the fast lane (unbelievably, there was one in 1856), and the folly of conceit. I think you'll enjoy it and get a good laugh at life with the lyrics. It's odd how some of these songs from long ago seem to be true even today.


Enjoy this early political song New feature! Print this sheet music(Scorch format)

listen to MIDI version



Little Mac! Little Mac! You're The Very Man


Music by: Stephen C. Foster
Lyrics by: Foster
Cover artist: unknown


The incredible success of the 1840 election "Tippicanoe" songs not only ensured Harrison & Tyler's victory but for the next 100 years afterward spawned a stream of odes, songs, waltzes, marches and polkas for presidential candidates. Though most campaign songs were written by relative unknowns, some of music's greatest writers added their talents to the fray. The 1864 presidential campaign pitted Ex-General George Mc Clellan against his former commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln. Removed from command of the Army of the Potomac late in 1862, McClellan managed to secure the Democratic nomination for president in 1864 and mounted a spirited campaign against his former boss. The Democratic platform on which McClellan ran called for an immediate armistice and a convention of all the warring parties to "secure peace without further bloodshed." Like many others, McClellan believed that Lincoln's insistence on preserving the Union at all costs was destroying the very thing he hoped to protect.


The Democratic party would be mortified to see this song associated with their party today as it represents one of the earliest uses of name calling and mudslinging in political songs and uses some language most any politician today would want to run for cover to avoid (see the Scorch format or the lyrics link below). Musically, it is brief but of the quality one would expect from a composer of Foster's caliber (except for that unfortunate phrase) and is a pleasant tune. As with some of the other songs here, the song was written for solo and chorus so I've voiced the music with piano and MIDI voice synthesis. I usually avoid the voice synthesis for it has a pretty cheesy sound to it sometimes and is inauthentic, however I've relented this time to add some sense of the song's sound as written.


Ultimately, McClellan's campaign came to nothing. Following the fall of Atlanta in September 1864 and General Philip Sheridan's defeat of the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia a month later, the Northern voting public could sense victory in the air and gave Lincoln another chance to do it his way. Although McClellan finally won elective office as governor of New Jersey (1878-1881), he never achieved the success his early career at West Point had predicted.

Listen to and see this campaign rarity New feature! Print this sheet music (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version


Rights Of Ladies


Music by: "Van"
Words by: Dennis Mc Flinn
Cover artist: unknown


One of the most controversial and polarizing issues of the late 19th century and early 20th century was the question of women's rights. We can see that in 1875, it was an issue and this quaint song seems to indicate that women would have the right to vote at any moment. Sadly, it would be another 45 years before the 19th amendment was ratified. This is another work that illustrates the use of music to address a political issue. The song is a delight, however the message is clear, men don't want women's rights. Agitation for female suffrage began shortly after the civil war with the passage of a referendum in Kansas. A body of songs developed which advocated suffrage and some, like this one which cleverly made light of it.


Written in an Irish sort of accent, the song takes the issue of women's rights to task with a very humorous and entertaining approach. The lyrics are funny but the message is clear. The song is a parody that mocks the idea of women's rights and makes fun of the idea from a man;s point of view. In many respects, the song demeans the issue and mocks the idea of women having the vote. Of course, that is what political songs are designed to do, present a point of view on an issue. The writer Mc Flinn shows us how a cleverly entertaining song can affect a political issue. The question of women's rights initiated quite a few songs over the years it was an issue including such "hits" as Everybody Works But Ma (She's an Advocate of Woman's Rights) in 1913, Who's Loony Now? in 1910 and Weak Little Women(1909).


The composer of this work is simply listed as "Van." Exactly who Van was is a mystery but it may be Van Der Weyde, or Charles A. Van Anden who were composers during this period who wrote a number of other popular songs. Dennis Mc Flinn is a complete mystery as well.


Hear this old women's rights protest New feature! Print this sheet music (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version




Hurrah! Hurrah! For Cleve and Steve


Music by: Henri Schoeller
Lyrics by: Gertie Jones
Cover artist: Earl

The First Democrat elected after the Civil War, Grover Cleveland was the only President to leave the White House and return for a second term four years later. First elected as the 22nd President in 1884, Cleveland won the Presidency with the combined support of Democrats and reform Republicans, the "Mugwumps," who disliked the record of his opponent James G. Blaine of Maine. A man of conviction, Cleveland took many politically unpopular actions and angered many people so as to loose his reelection bid in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison. In 1892, Cleveland was again nominated and won in 1892 taking over the presidency in one of the worst depressions in history. Combined again with his headstrong convictions, his party abandoned him in 1896 and he was not nominated for reelection.


Regardless of Cleveland's fortune's and failings, this song is one of the more musical and is another in the solo-chorus format. It's a very upbeat tune and if songs could win elections, Cleveland should have won his bid for a second term. With a rather rustic cover but a melodious and interesting song inside, it's a wonderful example of an American campaign song.


Henri (Henry) Schoeller wrote a number of other secular songs unrelated to politics including The light of love in 1877, I will not quite forget ,1866, Soldier's greeting; March militaire, 1866 and Keep me awake, Mother! in 1863 beyond that, I've been unable to find any other information about him. His lyricist in this work, Gertie Jones is a complete mystery to me.


Enjoy this great political song Print this sheet music (Scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version



Inaugural March


Music by: H.F. Eberhardt
Lyrics by: Eberhardt
Cover artist: unknown


Once an election was won, it was time to celebrate and enjoy the victory. Many musical political works were written also to celebrate the results of the election or the installation of the winner into office. In this case we revisit Grover Cleveland for his second inaugural, certainly an historic one and cause to celebrate. Cleveland's second term was more difficult than his first and this song was likely the high point of the entire administration. During this same period labor issues were paramount and non election related political songs focused on the bitter strikes and labor issues of the period. In some cases, just as we saw with Pop Goes The Weasel, popular songs of the times were "borrowed" and given topical lyrics. In one case, the seminal Tin Pan Alley work After The Ball was reissued as After The Strike, a protest song in support of union membership. This was a very politically unsettled period in America and much of the music reflected the times.


This work is interesting in that it is a march, but also includes a section with lyrics. The music starts with a very melodic and stirring march that really does convey a mood of celebration. The Trio includes words, very unusual for a march, I suppose the composer just could not contain his joy over Cleveland's election. The work then moves into a repeated finale with separate lyrics for each repeat.



Listen to this unique march song Print this sheet music (Scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version



See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.


WAIT! There are many more Political Songs, page 2 to see and hear. The second part of this issue features many more rare and different works.

More hit music and covers in this month's issue, go to part B.

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