Summer 2017

Political Overtures

Playing to the crowd on the presidential campaign trail

Justin Patch

Singer performing at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado.

It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but in the United States, political campaigns and music have always been natural allies. Both music and campaigns alter moods, transform atmospheres, change perceptions of time and space, and exert influence over emotion and intellect. Like campaigns, music can invoke nationhood and patriotism, and the national anthems, jingoistic tunes, and martial compositions that accompany them can move people to tears, or to violence. From urban pavement to rural grange halls, songs have unified labor movements, educated populist gatherings, and steeled the nerves of civil rights and anti-war protesters as they confronted hostility. When people challenge entrenched power, seek collective solace, celebrate victory, or project authority, music is their constant companion. Music forms identity, rewrites history, forges coalitions, and cultivates emotional connections, and its history on the campaign trail shows that candidates are fully aware of this potential. Music is also an empty signifier, open to wildly different interpretations, and when effectively deployed, it can serve the ventriloquist’s hand, sometimes in counterintuitive ways. It can accommodate the state and the resistance with equal efficacy.

In an election campaign, music is an instrument of power; it provides an aura of sovereignty, aurally reinforcing the legitimacy of incumbent and challenger alike. It is this singular ability to reach the hearts and minds of voters that has made music an essential part of American presidential campaigns from the nation’s infancy. Even as campaigns and voters have changed—as women and minorities fought and won the right to vote, as campaigns moved from the streets to the airwaves and onto digital platforms—music has remained a constant accompaniment. And as we slowly brace ourselves for the next presidential election, it is imperative that we understand the role that music has had in campaigns in order to better grasp the complex interplays of culture and the democratic process.

The use of music in presidential campaigns dates back to George Washington. A hero of the revolution, Washington was the clear favorite and went on to win elections in 1789 and 1792, the only unanimous electoral college victories in US history. A number of songs that had been written in praise of the leading role he played during the revolution were used in his honor while he campaigned. One such song, entitled “God Save Great Washington,” was printed in the Philadelphia Continental Journal in 1786 and used in his campaign three years later. It was sardonically set to the tune of “God Save the King,” England’s national anthem, and opened with the words:

God save great Washington
His worth from ev’ry tongue
Demands applause;
Ye tuneful pow’rs combine,

And each true Whig now join

Whose heart did ne’r resign
The glorious cause.

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