As I’ve pointed out before, “The Dodger” is a recognized American classic, recorded by such groups as The Almanac Singers and the Weavers, and arranged by Aaron Copland into a standard of the American art-music vocal repertoire, as part of his first set of Old American Songs.
All these popular renditions were based on a version recorded in December 1936 from Mrs. Emma Dusenbury. The recording was made by Sidney Robertson Cowell for the US government’s Resettlement Administration, and is now part of the American Folklife Center’s archive. Hear it in the player below.
Let’s also hear Thomas Hampson’s rendition of Copland’s arrangement, which was based on Mrs. Dusenbury’s recording:
As far as I can tell, the claim that the song is about the 1884 election first came to light thanks to Charles Seeger, in the context of a complaint about the song from a powerful Congressman. Seeger worked for the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration; Cowell, who collected “The Dodger” from Mrs. Dusenbury, worked for him as a fieldworker. In 1937, Seeger used the agency’s funds to print several song sheets, including one of “The Dodger.” See the outside covers of the sheet below.
Despite illustrating the song with a decidedly apolitical picture of a jackrabbit (drawn by Charles Pollock, elder brother of Jackson Pollock), Seeger later said in an oral history interview that the publication got his agency into political hot water:
One day when I was not in the office, there was a telephone call to Mr. Tugwell from (Senator) Vinson. He demanded to know before the next morning how it was that the Resettlement Administration had published a song called “The Candidate’s a Dodger.” He said this was an insult not only to the elected officials in the United States, but to the American government as a whole and the American people thereby; unless satisfactory explanation of the song was given, the Resettlement Administration budget would be reduced from $14,000,000 to $1,000,000. […] Fortunately, we had the knowledge that this song, which is one of the songs sung by Emma Dusenberry  and collected by Mrs. Cowell, was a Democratic campaign song of the election of 1884, between Cleveland and Blaine, which was a very dirty election in which Blaine was charged with having been a dodger in the Civil War–that is, paying somebody to take his place in the army. The explanation assuaged the senator, who was a staunch Democrat. 
Seeger’s claims have never been verified, and his vague statement “we had the knowledge” leaves open the question: where did that knowledge come from? We know it didn’t come from Mrs. Dusenbury. Although she was an adult at the time of the Cleveland-Blaine campaign and might well have remembered such a detail, she told Cowell right on the disc recording “I don’t know where it’s from or nothin’ about it,” making it unlikely that she told anyone else it was a campaign song from 1884. So far, I haven’t found another “smoking gun” that indicates where Seeger got this idea.
On first reading Seeger’s words, I was a bit skeptical of his claim. Mainly, this is because I had heard the charge of draft-dodging leveled against Grover Cleveland, but not against his opponent, James G. Blaine. Cleveland did indeed pay another man, George Benninsky, to substitute for him in the army during the Civil War. Although the practice was perfectly legal, it was unpopular since it allowed wealthy people to avoid service. For this reason, Cleveland found himself ridiculed by his opponents, especially early in his political career.
Looking deeper into this history, I find it mentioned in a few encyclopedias and websites that Blaine used the same tactic to avoid conscription, but I can find little evidence contemporary with the 1884 election that this was ever a big problem for him as a candidate. I believe the reasons for this are twofold: first, Cleveland’s draft-dodging came to the public’s attention first, so by the time Blaine’s was mentioned it made him no worse than his opponent; and second, when the act instituting a draft was signed into law, Blaine had already been elected to the US Congress, although he had not yet begun his term. Because of this, he had a reasonable argument as to why he should buy his way out of service: as one of Lincoln’s staunchest supporters in Congress, Blaine was needed to support Lincoln’s wartime plans, which he dutifully did. Since the policies he had helped get through Congress had won the war, it was hard to say he hadn’t done his part. The result of this was that, in 1884, even though they had both taken advantage of perfectly legal means of avoiding conscription, Cleveland was occasionally ridiculed as a draft-dodger, but Blaine was not.
A second thing made me skeptical of the claim that the song was specifically aimed at James Blaine: it’s not explicit in the song which candidate is being ridiculed. The political rhetoric of the 1880s wasn’t all that subtle; a famous example of an anti-Blaine ditty ran:
Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!
Continental liar from the state of Maine!
While it’s true that the best-known anti-Cleveland ditty, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa,” didn’t use Cleveland’s name, it alluded to a paternity scandal so well known that many people today still know about it. (You can read about it here.) If “The Dodger” was used in the campaign to reference a scandal, it’s since become considerably more obscure than Cleveland’s fathering a child out of wedlock.
It’s still plausible that this song was used against James Blaine, though. For one thing, as I showed in my previous post, a newly-identified early version of the song from England identified the first dodger as “The Politician.” This squares nicely with Mrs. Dusenbury’s song, which identifies “The Candidate.” It suggests that Mrs. Dusenbury’s version of this song, while unique among American folk versions in containing this political message, might have been preserving it from older versions of the song. This in turn suggests that “The Dodger” might have been seen as a political song already in the 1840s, and it might have made sense in 1884 for someone to adapt it to fit the election that year.
The next question might be, why would Blaine, specifically, make sense as the target? As it turns out, Blaine was often called a “dodger,” not based on his wartime record, but but based on several other public actions.
For example, Blaine was often called a “dodger” for his position on prohibition. Blaine, as a member of the Maine legislature and then a US congressman from Maine and US Senator, had to satisfy the strong prohibition lobby in his state. But, as Speaker of the House, and as a politician with national aspirations, he could not be too supportive of prohibition, which was unpopular nationally at the time. As a result, he seems to have made private assurances that he would vote for prohibition, and then arranged to be elsewhere when the votes occurred, so as not to go on the record with his support.
If we need to ask whether this was considered “dodging,” there’s no better place to look than this editorial from the Steuben Signal, as quoted in the American Reformer:
Mr. Blaine did not vote for or against the constitutional amendment in Maine—he dodged. As the chosen leader of the National Republican party he had to dodge. A dodging platform adopted by a dodging party required a dodging candidate. A better dodger than Mr. Blaine could be found nowhere. Dodging is his ‘best hold’—he delights, he revels in it. Neal Dow proclaimed through the press weeks beforehand that Mr. Blaine would vote for the amendment, but he didn’t. Neal Dow had this assurance from Mr. Blaine himself, and believed him. One meaning of dodge is ‘to start suddenly aside.’ Mr. Blaine did not lie, ‘he started suddenly aside.’ Another meaning of dodge is ‘to evade.’ Mr. Blaine ‘evaded.’ As a sudden starter aside and an evader, Mr. Blaine is a success. When we belonged to the Republican party, it didn’t dodge, and it had no use for dodgers as candidates. It may be that Providence looking down the years saw that the time would come when the Republican party would dodge and seeing this got ready the man for the hour. The hour has come, and so has Mr. Blaine. Behold a dodging party, putting a dodging candidate on a dodging platform.
As I pointed out in my previous post, the song “The Dodger” seems to have come to the United States from England as part of a play. The play had originally been titled The Artful Dodge, but on its arrival in the United States in 1844, it was retitled for the American market as The Artful Dodger. So in 1884 there might still have been an association in people’s minds between the song “The Dodger” and the specific idea and phrase “the Artful Dodger.” This makes the following letter, also from the American Reformer and also about the prohibition issue, particularly interesting:
FROM ARTHUR C JACKSON Damariscotta Me Sept 13 1884 Henry Cabot Lodge Chairman Massachusetts Republican State Committee:
Dear Sir—Your favor of the 29th forwarded to me here. This is the fourth consecutive year I have been asked to stump the State of Massachusetts in the interest of the Republican party. I am no longer a Republican and cannot therefore allow the use of my name as proposed.
My first vote was cast for Garfield and Arthur my next will be for St John and Daniel.
As a temperance Republican I have repeatedly listened to the promises of your party leaders that temperance legislation would receive their honest support—promises only to be disregarded and never fulfilled.
The nomination of the worst possible presidential candidate in the person of Mr. Blaine, a man who may be known in history as the Plumed Knight of Political Chicanery and Prince of Artful Dodgers, together with the contemptible reception by the Republican National Convention of the earnest petition of the noblest band of temperance workers the world has ever seen—the pride and flower of American women—should cause the withdrawal from your party of every sincere friend of the temperance cause. 
Other issues, such as the question of whether trade tariffs helped or hurt American labor, also got Blaine labeled as a “dodger” (see the cartoon above).
It wasn’t only issues, however; Blaine was also prone to scandals, many of which involved accusations of bribery and other misdeeds, so he was constantly evading accusers and investigators. The biggest of these was a scandal that had originally emerged before Blaine’s previous presidential campaign in 1876. In February of that year, allegations emerged that Blaine had been bribed by several railway companies to promote their interests while Speaker of the House. Blaine denied the allegations, and Democrats in Congress convened a committee to investigate. In late May, James Mulligan, an office clerk, emerged with a bombshell: the allegations were true, and he had letters between Blaine and Boston businessman Warren Fisher Jr., which proved it.
Before Mulligan turned the letters over to the committee, he met with Blaine privately, and Blaine convinced him to give up the letters. Blaine then refused to turn the letters over to the committee. He did read the letters out on the floor of Congress on June 5, 1876—but no one could say for sure if he read all the letters. Although the investigation did not find enough to prove any wrongdoing, the scandal caused Rutherford B. Hayes to defeat Blaine for the nomination of the Republican party in 1876—and Hayes subsequently became President.
The “Mulligan Letters,” as they were known, reemerged to damage Blaine in 1884. Once Blaine had secured the Republican nomination in that year, J.S. Cushing and Company had the idea to publish a book of the letters; since they had been read out on the floor of Congress, they were available to the public in the Congressional Record. Adding a brief account of the scandal and a minimal apparatus of footnotes, they put out the book Mr. Blaine and the Mulligan Letters. What had previously been a scandal involving a Speaker of the House who hoped to be nominated for the presidency was elevated to a scandal involving the Republican nominee. Even worse for Blaine, Mulligan reappeared with more letters, one of which ended with the damning request to “burn this letter.” Most commentators believe that both the issue of Prohibition and the scandal of the Mulligan Letters damaged Blaine in the general election, and Cleveland was of course the victor.
As evidence that the Mulligan Letters were seen as part of a pattern of behavior that Blaine’s opponents called being a “dodger,” consider the cartoon below. Blaine’s headgear is a reference to one of his nicknames, “the plumed knight,” which was given to him at the Republican convention in 1876—at the height of the original Mulligan Letters scandal. Note that both the visor of the helmet and one of the plumes say “Dodger” on them, while another plume says “Mulligan Letters.” Another of Blaine’s nicknames was “the magnetic man,” due to his oratorical skills, hence the references to magnetism. Other scandals are referenced throughout the cartoon.An interesting aside to the story of the Mulligan Letters is the importance to the story of the word “note.” Throughout the letters, the instruments of debt between Fisher and Blaine are referred to as “notes”:
I do not think, under the circumstances, it would be quite wise or kind in you to place any note or notes of mine that may happen to be in your possession in the hands of third parties as collateral. In any event I ask as a simple favor that you will not do so, and that you will send me by return mail a copy of all obligations of mine in your possession.
In addition, the letters themselves are sometimes referred to as “notes,” as in this shady-sounding missive from Blaine:
My Dear Mr. Fisher : Your brief note received. I do not know what you mean by my “not mentioning Northern Pacific and denying everything else.”
In the only verse of “The Dodger” collected from oral tradition that refers to “The Candidate,” he’s described as “a-dodging for a note.” I always assumed this to mean a banknote, or paper money, but it’s interesting that Blaine was known for dodging after other kinds of notes, including promissory notes and incriminating letters.
Running counter to these associations between Blaine, the song, and the idea of “dodgers” and “dodging” is the fact that “dodger” was a pretty common insult, and was used against Cleveland too. For example, this letter from the Somerset Herald, September 24, 1884 (see column 3):
A Cowardly Dodger
Grover Cleveland is trying to win the Presidency by dodging the leading issue that enters the canvass. Where does he stand on the tariff? He was afraid to express himself on this overshadowing question in his letter of acceptance. Consequently he contented himself with pointing to the Democratic national platform and remarking ‘I say ditto to that’ But he was perfectly well aware that in so doing he was guilty of a miserable evasion, since the platform was framed with the intent to muddle and mislead.
So, to sum up the evidence, it’s undeniable that there were associations in people’s minds between Blaine and the ideas of “dodging,” “dodgers,” and “The Artful Dodger.” It’s also true that by 1884 versions of the song “The Dodger” had been quite successful across the country in a play called “The Artful Dodger.” Also, in one folk version of the song, “The Candidate” is accused of “dodging for a note,” while “notes” in several senses were central to one of Blaine’s “dodging” scandals. All this makes it believable that someone might have had the idea to use the song “The Dodger” in the campaign against Blaine, and might have composed the verse about “The Candidate” to fit the case. But weighing against this are two things: first, Grover Cleveland, Blaine’s opponent, was also known as a dodger, and second, this is all circumstantial evidence; there is still no clear, documented connection between the song and the campaign.Turning again to Charles Seeger’s story, another thing seems striking: the Cleveland campaign isn’t mentioned on the song sheet, despite its being exactly the kind of detail one would expect Seeger might include, had he known it at the time. This suggests that he didn’t know the song was associated with the Cleveland campaign when he prepared the song sheet. Yet as soon as he published the sheet, and was challenged and threatened by a powerful Democratic Congressman, he was able to assuage that Congressman’s anger with the information, suddenly acquired, that the offending ditty was a Democratic campaign song!
I’m suggesting, of course, that perhaps Charles Seeger did not actually know of a connection between the song and the campaign. Perhaps he only suspected it, based on circumstantial evidence like the connections I’ve outlined. Or perhaps he’d heard it as “common knowledge” but had no way of verifying it. Perhaps, however, he realized it would be worthwhile to exaggerate his certainty in order to save 13 million dollars of the Resettlement Administration budget.
Obviously, I can’t be sure of this theory. There were many people in Seeger’s life who were old enough to remember the Cleveland-Blaine campaign, including, for example, his friend John A. Lomax, then the head of the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song, who was 17 during the Cleveland-Blaine campaign. Any of these people might have verbally recounted firsthand testimony of the song being sung by Cleveland supporters in 1884. Or, there might be a written source I simply haven’t found.
But I for one would like to think that Charles Seeger took matters into his own hands and embellished his tale a little, dodging the wrath of Congressman Vinson and creating a new origin story for “The Dodger.” It seems only fitting that one of the founders of ethnomusicology, one of my most distinguished predecessors as a federal folklorist, and the man who first published “The Dodger,” should also qualify as a magnificent dodger himself.
- Different people who knew Mrs. Dusenbury spelled her name differently. We believe the correct spelling is Dusenbury.
- The word “Senator,” in parentheses, appears in the published transcript of Seeger’s interview. It seems Seeger might merely have said “Vinson,” and the identification as “Senator Vinson” might have been added by the transcriber. However, there was no US Senator named Vinson at the time. I believe Seeger meant Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia.
- On Halloween, 1884, Governor Hoadly of Ohio similarly called Blaine an “artful dodger” for his position on prohibition. (New York Times, November 1, 1884. )
- There’s one final association between Blaine and “The Dodger”: Blaine’s official biography was written by Gail Hamilton, a well known writer at the time and an early feminist thinker. Hamilton, however, was really a pen name for Blaine’s wife’s cousin, Mary Abigail Dodge. Dodge, who lived in Massachusetts, frequently summered with the Blaines, and was considered a part of their household. Many believed that Dodge was also Blaine’s main speechwriter, although this has never been confirmed. At the time, Dodge’s writings about Blaine were valued by readers who believed they gave an insider’s picture of Blaine’s politics. Mrs. Blaine’s letters reveal that, in addition to “cousin Abby,” Dodge was known in the Blaines’ household as “The Dodger.” Although the public certainly knew of his association with Dodge, I don’t know if anyone outside the family knew her nickname, so this is not really evidence–but it’s an intriguing connection!