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Songs of US Presidents

HailColumbia212

A song sheet with the lyrics for “Hail Columbia,” a song composed for George Washington that was used for a time as the national anthem.

For Presidents’ Day, take a look at the new presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. [1] This article will provide links giving you a start.

George Washington had songs written for him while he was a general.  An example is “General Washington,” which was printed on a single side of a paper; this is known as a song sheet or broadside.  The printer tells us it is sung by Washington’s men and no author is given. At the time these song sheets were a common way for songs to be distributed. When Washington became president there were no established protocols regulating the music to be played or songs to be sung for presidents. An anthem was composed for his inauguration by by Philip Phile (or Pfeil). Words were later added nine years later by Joseph Hopkinson and this became the patriotic song “Hail Columbia.” It was one of the songs commonly used for the national anthem before “The Star Spangled Banner” was made the official national anthem in 1931.

Presidents had personal anthems, sometimes one of the anthems used during their election campaign, until “Hail to the Chief” became the official presidential anthem. It was first played for Andrew Jackson on January 9, 1829. There are words to this anthem, written by Albert Gamse, though they are rarely sung:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

It was the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that gave rise to the idea of having a shared holiday called Presidents’ Day.

Lincoln’s campaigns for president gave rise to songs such as “Old Honest Abe for Me,” from his first campaign in 1860, that show that the legend of Lincoln was being created from the very beginning of his journey to the presidency.  He was not without detractors, of course, and an example is “Uncle Abe or a Hit at the Times,” a song sheet satirizing Lincoln’s election. Songs were written in support of Lincoln as the Civil War began, such as “We are Coming Father Abraham,” published in 1862.  Lincoln’s second campaign was begun while the Civil War was still being fought. Songs favoring Lincoln during that campaign predict victory, sometimes in violent terms, such as “Abraham our Abraham” (1864).

Lincoln’s death was marked by an outpouring of grief with many songs composed for him. “Booth Killed Lincoln,” was a ballad sung recounting the assassination, here sung by the folksong collector and performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford (this version is illustrated with photographs from Library of Congress collections).  “Liberty and Union Forever” was a song written in memorial to Lincoln by Silas Steele that concludes with both Lincoln and Washington looking down on the nation “from on high.”

To continue exploring Songs of America, follow the links below.

Note

[1] This year, the Federal Government recognizes February 17 as Washington’s Birthday.  Although this is the official name of the holiday within the government, it is popularly celebrated as “Presidents’ Day,” inspired by the fact that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had their birthdays in February.

Resources

 

One Comment

  1. Martha Burns
    February 18, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    “Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander…
    [RHYMES WITH]
    Hail to the one we selected as commander,…”

    almost goes in the category “so bad it’s good.” No wonder it’s rarely sung!

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