Know Your Candidate: Analyzing Sheet Music to Explore Presidential Nominee Identity

This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

It is difficult to miss talk of the upcoming presidential election. Speeches, debates, and soundbites fill television screens, newspapers, and websites. But unless you attend a live event for a presidential nominee, you may not hear his or her campaign song, typically a familiar, popular song selected to shape how voters perceive the candidate. Campaign songs from long ago, original scores or popular songs with rewritten lyrics, did the same. The Library of Congress has presidential campaign songs representing elections from 1868 to 1920. Looking at these songs can help a student learn about political parties, issues of the day, and presidential nominees, including how a candidate wanted to be perceived.

Stonewall Wilson, 1916

Take the 1916 U.S. presidential campaign. Woodrow Wilson sought reelection, challenged by Charles Hughes. At the time of the campaign, the Mexican Revolution was south of the U.S. border. Across the Atlantic, the Great War was well underway. Ensure that students have this small amount of background, and then share the sheet music for Stonewall Wilson.

Introduce the cover art and title of the sheet music to assess how Woodrow Wilson is portrayed. Students may not know the title’s reference to Stonewall Jackson, so ask them to picture a stone wall and what it would mean to refer to someone as such.

Encourage students to study the lyrics of the song, analyzing each verse and the refrain to find the messages about Wilson that the song tells. Students can use the Primary Source Analysis Tool to document evidence from specific lyrics. Ask students:

  • How does the writer of this song feel about the Mexican Revolution and World War I?
  • How is Woodrow Wilson portrayed in the song?
  • What type of voter would find this song, and candidate, appealing? What type may not?

Refrain from Stonewall Wilson, 1916, page 5

Students may focus on lyrics such as “He’s the man to take command” and “He can bite as well as bark” to conclude that Wilson is being portrayed as a strong military leader. The idea of Wilson’s military leadership is made more complex with the lyrics “no heedless, hasty action” and “His the strong restraining hand.”

Hearing the music gives students another insight into the intentions of the author. Students can share their emotional reactions to the music or whether the score reminded them of another song or type of music. Students can use character traits to describe the music such as strong, forceful, or upbeat, and compare those with words used in the lyrics to describe Wilson.

Revisit the cover art and ask students how it supports or contradicts what they have interpreted from the lyrics and the music.

Point out to students that this song highlights one issue of the campaign and only gives one perspective. Bringing in other primary and secondary sources can help students understand Wilson’s portrayal in this song in the broader context of the 1916 presidential campaign and in the events of the day.

What presidential election would you most like your students to explore through campaign songs?

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