What happened to political jingles?
What happened to political jingles?
Political campaign songs were a staple of the American presidential election cycle since 1800. With almost every election in the 19th century having each candidate have their surrogates going forth to teach and lead audiences in singing their songs during the campaign. Before modern radio and television songs were just one of a myriad of ways that political campaigns would try to keep their voters interested. Which also included but was not limited to “live animals, fife-and-drum corps, red fire, floats” ”parades...banners, mass meetings, concerts”...and famously in 1840, William Henry Harrison’s campaign literally rolled a giant ball around the country as a publicity stunt. And while many of those campaign ideas have survived for two centuries, sadly not the ball, the original campaign song reached its zenith in the 60s and 70s then slowly started fading into obscurity. Yes, while there are still songs played by campaigns today, no major candidates are having completely new compositions made or are adapting already existing music by changing the lyrics. But of course to understand why this extremely catchy medium died out and was replaced by unoriginal songs without any political connotations, we need to first actually define what a political campaign song precisely is and go back to the first golden age of political songs to understand their eventual fall from grace.
I have created three categories with which to define political campaign songs to make it easier to discuss.
1.Original. Songs where everything was composed and written from the ground up for the purpose of the political candidate running.
2. Adapted. The lyrics of an existing song were changed. The most common in the 19th century, they would take folk songs and change the lyrics to suit their candidate.
3. Unoriginal. Use an existing song in its entirety, with no political connotations.
I will mainly be focusing on the original and adapted because they are usually more interesting since they never happen in modern politics.
The 1840 presidential election is regarded by some for being the campaign that kickstarted the widespread use of song, and some would say other modern campaign techniques used while campaigning for President. While songs had been used before in American presidential elections, they were not as numerous nor as impactful as the songs in the 1840 election.
A notable example from the 1840 Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren is the seemingly innocuous parody of Rockabye Baby. But when listened to instead of being a lullaby, the lyrics were altered to blatantly call out his opponent as being a drunk hermit. This is just one of a score of attack songs deployed by both campaigns, almost akin to modern day attack ads.
The most famous song from that election came from William Henry Harrison’s supporters and was said to be so influential and catchy The American Review called it the “Marseillaise” of 1840. It was Tipacanoe and Tyler Too, which subsequently spawned a slogan of the same name that became one of the most memorable campaign slogans in American history. Written by a jeweler in Ohio, it tore across the country with its catchy and extremely clever lyrics. Referencing everything from the giant ball to Tippecanoe, Harrison's nickname picked up from his victory at the battle of Tippecanoe.
But unfortunately for us modern listeners, Tip and Ty was the last great campaign song for over a century that had any perceived impact, with most others falling into obscurity. There were great quantities produced by every campaign for generations, mostly based on existing tunes and adjusting the lyrics to fit, but none that were recognized as being significant as Tipacanoe and Tyler Too. (Except for maybe the mildly amusing “Get on the Raft with Taft” which I am convinced might just be some lyricist struggling to find a rhyme for Taft.) For over a century there were mediocre songs being produced by all the candidates' campaigns, but it is also likely that for a modern listener they are particularly dull.
But in 1952, the first television commercials were deployed to support a candidate in the presidential election. With the widespread adoption of television in American households in the 1950s, it became an extremely influential factor in shaping the American public's opinions of the candidates. The medium was therefore quickly adopted by politicians. One of the most frequently played ads in the 1952 election cycle happened to be an animated jingle. “We’ll take Ike to Washington” was requested by TV stations more than any other Eisenhower advertisement due to its popularity with their viewers. Its popularity and catchyness was probably helped by the fact that it was composed, animated, and produced by Walt Disney Studios.
The Disney advertisement wasn’t the only piece of music written for Eisenhower as he was also lucky enough to have Irving Berlin, possibly the greatest songwriter and lyricist in American history, incorporate “They Like Ike” into his latest musical at the time in 1951. The Disney ad was sponsored by Citizens for Eisenhower, a group trying to convince Eisenhower to run for president, the Irving Berlin song had a similar goal, as the ex general was extremely hesitant about getting into politics. And while it is impossible to say what effect these specific songs had on the American public, it is safe to say they at least had some role in convincing Eisenhower to run for President in the first place.
It was not just the Eisenhower campaign making television advertisements. His opponent in the general election, Adlai Stevenson, also produced some interesting ads…but they obviously did not have Disney's top composers on their side. This Stevenson ad from the 1952 election, is sung to Oh Tannenbaum with the lyrics changed to fit the candidate. The first line may be the worst rhyme ever put to song. Rhyming Stevenson with “believe in, son”. Most would probably say the Eisenhower song was much better written when compared to Stevenson’s ad, regardless of the cute animation.
In the 1952 presidential election Eisenhower crushed Stevenson by winning 39 out of 48 states.. Stevenson came back for round two in 1956 running against Eisenhower again in the general election, with some slightly better jingles with accompanying animation this time. Interestingly enough, I could not find any evidence that Eisenhower had any new songs produced or reused for his reelection in ‘56. Obviously hoping to make up for the lack thereof in the previous election, Stevenson was. But for Stevenson it was not enough and he was obliterated again by Eisenhower by an even wider margin in the 1956 election.
But the original contest between Stevenson and Eisenhower in 1952 opened the floodgates to a renewed interest in political song due to its effectiveness. In some cases its effectiveness on television. The presidential campaigns clearly recognized this fact, as every campaign for the next twenty-eight years would have at least one original campaign song, all stemming from the 1952 “We Like Ike” ad by Disney.
The next election in 1960 essentially was to decide if Eisenhower's heir, Vice President Richard Nixon, would succeed him or be replaced by a Democrat. Nixon was essentially unopposed whereas Kennedy had to fight for the Democratic nomination.
While Nixon did have a campaign song written specifically for him while facing Kennedy, it was not deployed as a television advertisement. Titled “Vote For Nixon” it was a mass produced vinyl that was likely sent to potential voters or donors. While Kennedy’s campaign took a cue from the success of the Citizens for Eisenhower song and released a jingle advertisement that is possibly the top contender for most memorable, catchy, and effective campaign song. It was upbeat, drilled the candidate’s name into one's skull and left one thinking about it for hours. Almost the perfect advertisement.
The group that created this advertisement was Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson and was a subset of the larger Kennedy campaign. Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson had the “intention...to interest those people --Democrats, Republicans and Independents -- whom regular Democratic party organizations did not reach or appeal to.” This part of the campaign, and specifically the jingle, was designed to target people who did not traditionally vote for Democrats, and when viewed through that lens one can see why it was written in such a catchy, repetitive, and largely apolitical way.
Unfortunately, unlike the “We Like Ike” ad there is no information to be found about who actually composed or animated it, so I cannot credit the lyricist, composer, and animator for their good work. I even went so far as contacting the Kennedy Presidential Library but while they were helpful for finding who Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson were, they also did not have any idea where the ad actually came from, due to the archivists not having access to the physical library resources.
JFK is remembered as making television king in the presidential campaign theater, and how he did this with the debates with Nixon is an entirely different discussion. But considering this “jingle” is one of the only pieces of television remembered about this election and is certainly more remembered than “Vote For Nixon”, it shows something about its power as a successful song.
It is also worth mentioning Kennedy had a very successful adaptation of a Frank Sinatra song made for him by Frank Sinatra himself, by taking the hit single High Hopes and changing the lyrics to support “Jack” Kennedy.
With Kennedy having Frank Sinatra and an extremely catchy jingle on his side it was almost impossible for anyone to come after him in regard to political campaign songs. Johnson had his “Hello, Lyndon” which is adapted from the musical “Hello, Dolly”, much like High Hopes for JFK was adapted from a movie. But this song usually gets largely overlooked as its attack ad counterpart is much more well remembered for its audacity: the Daisy ad. Which bluntly inferred that Johnson's opponent, Goldwater, was going to cause a nuclear holocaust. So of course this is the ad people and history remember and not the very non-offending “Hello, Lyndon” song.
With Lyndon Johnson not running for reelection in 1968 it opened the door for Nixon to try his hand again at running for president eight years after he lost to Kennedy. Once again in the 1968 election, as in 1960, his campaign had “Nixon’s the One” which they would mail to voters.
In 1972 he had the Mike Curb Congregation write and perform him a “theme song” and a “rally song”. While they were most likely never being used in television advertising due to their length, they were professional level songs the campaign could use at campaign rallies to stir enthusiasm and still send out to voters on vinyl. And unlike Kennedy, Nixon in all three of his national elections never used his songs in advertising. But him or his campaign team obviously thought it important to have at least one song every election, and even go so far as to hire well known songwriters for the job.
The two Mike Curb Congregation songs are probably some of the highest quality songs in the political song canon. For some context the Mike Curb Congregation helped write the piece “Candy Man” for the original Willy Wonka movie, which became a hit in its own right independent of the film. Nixon went on a splurge recruiting a professional band to write his political music. It also probably did help Mike Curb was a fellow California Republican.
Then after Nixon we really start to get to the tail end of the centuries long saga of campaign songs. With Carter and Ford running against each other in the 1976 election having the last two major campaign songs written specifically for them. Carter with his, in hindsight, very ironic “Why not the best?” and Ford, with his song obviously taking inspiration from Nixon's upbeat tunes, with “Feeling Good”. But strangely goes nowhere near actually naming Ford in the song. This is a very striking change from the Kennedy Jingle which says Kennedy sixty times (yes, I did count). Or even from the Nixon songs from four years earlier where the whole premise of the song is based on Nixon's name. Surprisingly, Ford’s song marks a turning point in American political music. The death of the candidate focused song and even soon the death of the political campaign song all together. With the next election Reagan’s theme song being written once again by the Mike Curb Congregation, “Together, A New Beginning”. But it never actually once mentions Reagan or anything really other than being a Yakko’s World style of listing States in a show of unity.
And that is it. Mondale, HW Bush, Dukakis, Perot, Bill Clinton (admittedly he did play saxophone), Dole, Gore, W. Bush, McCain, Romney, Obama, and Trump all did not have any campaign songs actually written for them. The campaign song officially died somewhere in between Carter and Reagan. Do not misunderstand—campaigns still use songs, just in a different way. Today they exclusively use pre-existing non-political songs for their campaigns. No candidate since Reagan has had music written for them. One possibility could be it is less risky to use a pre-existing song that is already known to be catchy than to risk composing a new one and it falling short. Or possibly internal data these campaigns had access to showed the unique campaign song was falling out of favor. It is probably impossible to know why exactly campaigns stopped using this medium of marketing but it can be said with confidence it quietly died out forty years ago and has not made a return. And maybe it should, many of the songs really hold up well just as plain music regardless of one's political stance. Of course there is no way to know the true impact these songs had on the electorate other than the eventual outcome of the election itself and is probably the case for any kind of advertising in political campaigns, that the only way to judge its effectiveness is solely on who wins. But that still gives us no indication of how great a factor the advertisements actually were. At the very least they give us looking back, something nostalgic and unique to listen to that does not exist in our current times.
 Dictionary of American History by James Truslow Adams, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940  ibid.  Irwin Silber, Songs America Voted By (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1971), 33.  ibid.  Silber, Songs America, 37.  Jim Korkis, "The Disney Animated Presidential Commercial," Cartoon Research, last modified December 17, 2015, accessed September 19, 2020, https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/the-disney-animated-presidential-commercial/.  Barbara Diggs Brown, Strategic Public Relations: An Audience-Focused Approach (n.p.: Cengage Advantage Books, 2011), 53.  Korkis, "Disney," Cartoon Research.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=11&v=MxYDTTNYMic&feature=emb_logo  Emails with Nixon Library Archivist.  Records of “Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson” DNC.  Records of “Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson” DNC (pg 68).  Brown, Strategic Public, 53.  Emails with Nixon Library Archivist.