Presidential Campaign Songs and the Connection to the “Folks”

I believe our music can change someone's life in a single evening." - Bruce  Springsteen in Octobe… | Musician quotes, Bruce springsteen the boss, Bruce  springsteen

As we enter the first week of December and await inauguration day for President Elect Joe Biden, I thought it would apropos for my column this month to reflect politics without being political. While we all have political opinions, and I am sure they have come out in some way or another the past few months, it is this writer’s opinion, that this is not the forum to express those feelings. With that being said, I wanted to take this moment, in living history, to reflect on past presidential elections, not the platforms of the candidates but the music the candidates used as part of their plea to the American public. Modern Presidential campaigns begin years before the general election. While campaigns and platforms vary (depending on the person) their overarching goal is the same…to connect with the people of America. With the goal of connecting with people, from all walks of life, maybe difficult for any candidates, over the course of our history as a nation, Presidents have used the power of song to help bridge the gap between them and the electorate. While this seems like a pretty straight forward campaign strategy, the power of music has propelled the popularity of some and saw backlash to others.

To look at the birth of the modern campaign, we need to take a step in the DeLorean and get it up to 88 MPH and go back to the 1828 election. That election saw a disgruntle Andrew Jackson (felt he won the election of 1824 and Henry Clay and John Q. Adams were in collusion to make sure he did not become victories) Jackson had a point, he won the popular vote and had the most electoral votes but he did not get a majority so therefore it was brought to the House. It was at this point that Jackson was going to have a vengeance against JQA and Clay and began campaigning for the 1828 election, which he won in a landslide. So what is the point? This is a vinyl periodical isn’t it? Well, Jackson will transform the campaign to connect with a new swath of voters as a result of universal white male suffrage. With universal white male suffrage becoming more popular in the states (sorry ladies, African and Native Americans… ugh…) candidates had to be able to connect with various socio-economic groups of people, not just rich, white, landowning, males. This notion of actually connecting with the electorate would forever become a staple in Presidential campaigns and music will play a role in that bridge. So, bring on the tunes….

While Jackson and presidential candidates thereafter will work to connect with the voting public, using music is nothing new. John Adams, our second President, used music during his presidency. The song Adams and Liberty was used during the election of 1800 (Adams v. Jefferson) and sets the precedent for the connection of campaigns and music. On a side note, if you think our latest election was “nasty” then take a look at 1800, it’s a goody… Both Adams (Federalist) and Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) had campaign songs that were created to mock one another. Moreover, this was the period before the 12th Amendment (1804) set the standards for how POTUS and VPOTUS election work. In 1796, Adams was the president and Jefferson was the VP due to the fact he had the second largest number of votes. To put that into today’s context, that is like having Biden be the President and Trump as his VP… yes, I just said that. Rather than going through the presidents of the 19th century, I wanted to concentrate this article on the mid 20th century through the present.

Lot Detail - "Vote for Change" Original Concert Poster Featuring Bruce  Springsteen, R.E.M. and More!

The first half of the twentieth century was similar to the 19th as most presidential campaign songs were written specifically for the candidate. In the context of the 21st century that sounds a bit “cheesy,” but it was the norm. One of the most popular “made for candidate” jingles was “I like Ike” for the 1952 election that saw Dwight Eisenhower campaign against Adlai Stevenson (a landside for Ike). “I like Ike” was a catchy cartoon jingle (TV was new technology) and screamed 1950s. While this was more of a jingle than a “song,” it did change the face of campaigning and thrusted campaigns into the “pop age.” The jingle was written by Irving Berlin and the TV ad was done in Walt Disney studios. Eisenhower was utilizing the newest technology of the time period for his campaign, similar to Obama in 2008 embracing the growth of social media.

As presidents will still use songs created specifically for them, the Kennedy campaign (1960) was one of the earliest to have a mainstream artist endorse a candidate. Frank Sinatra used the melody of “High Hopes” and reconfigured the lyrics to support JFK. The two would cement a friendship and usher in a new era of politics and music. Mr. Sinatra saw JFK in early 1960 at the Sands in Las Vega and introduced him as “The next President of the United States.” This was the first time an artist publicly endorsed a presidential candidate, setting a precedent for future artists to show public support for a presidential candidate.

The LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations mostly saw a “return to normalcy” of specifically written campaign songs, although George McGovern (D) in 1972 used “Bridge over Trouble Water” and had a benefit concert entitled Together for McGovern. This concert was hosted by actor Warren Beatty and saw the reunion of Simon and Garfunkel at MSG. In addition, there was a West Coast concert for McGovern entitled Four for McGovern that saw artists James Taylor, Carole King and Barbra Streisand.   Seeing McGovern run on the anti-war platform, a benefit concert fits into the narrative of Vietnam and the anti-war movement. Music was an influential avenue of expression during this era to end the war so having artists support an anti-war candidate seems appropriate…hmmmm sounds like an idea for a future article.

The 1980s saw specifically written campaign songs come to an end and pop music into the mainstream of the campaign trail. In a post-Vietnam America, artists were weary of putting their name to a song to endorse a specific candidate. The post-Vietnam America saw a change in the way the public viewed the government as a result of Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers) and the corrupt cherry on top…Watergate.

When thinking of music and presidential campaigns, probably the most popular to come to mind is Bill Clinton. Clinton arguably changed presidential campaigns when he played a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley on the saxophone during an episode of the Arsenio Hall show in 1992. John King from CNN argues, this changed politics by having a candidate move away from traditional news broadcasts to try and reach a new audience. With character questions surrounding Clinton in ’92 plus Ross Perot as third party spoiler, Clinton wanted to use the power of late-night TV to reach a young audience. Furthermore, Clinton was the first President of the baby boomer generation. So what better way to reach out to them than by belting out the sounds of Elvis on National TV? Couple his performance on Arsenio Hall with “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, Clinton did reach out to the younger voting electorate and won the election of ’92. This victory would not be done without the power of music.

With the 1980s offered a new wave of pop culture into the campaign, not all presidential campaign songs were accepted by the artists; what I like to call “artists blowback” began in the 1980s and still relevant on today’s trail. In July of 2015, Rolling Stone online ran an article entitled Stop Using My Song: 35 Artists Who Fought Politicians Over Their Music. While I am not going to detail all 35, some of my favorites are as follows. Yes, I am going to reference Bruce and Born in the USA. More on Bruce and politics to come but for now let’s look at Reagan and reelection. The Reagan camp asked to use the chart toper “Born in the USA” during the ’84 campaign. Springsteen denied their request. No surprise there, as Springsteen was becoming more politically charged during this time period. The title track and album for that matter, as he indicates in his book, is really his self-inflicted penance for failing his physical and not having a “rifle in his hand.” If you want to read the influence behind Born in the USA and the friendships that came about during the recording process read Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic. But I digress, back to Reagan. Without the blessing of the Boss, Reagan went on and referenced the song in a speech “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” Springsteen responded to Reagan by “shrugging it off” to some extent and making mention of the comment at a concert in Pittsburgh. Later he would go on to calling out Reagan by asking “has he ever really listened to my songs.” Springsteen was not only talking about The Born in the USA “incident” but the disconnect between the Reagan Conservatives and the “working class folk” that Springsteen was an advocate for.

Bill Clinton plays the sax - Iconic presidential campaign moments - CBS News

The Springsteen Born in the USA “misrepresentation” paved the way for artists and politicians to go head to head on the meaning of music. Most recently, Donald Trump had been using “Fortunate Son” by CCR; a song that was an indictment on the inequality of the social classes during the Vietnam War, also known as the “working class war.” John Fogerty outwardly said, in an LA Times article, “The song is decrying the kind of person he is. He’s absolutely that person I wrote the song about.” Trump was the “Fortunate Son” who was deferred from Vietnam due to “heel spurs.” Trump is not an isolated incident. George W. Bush, John McCain and Bob Dole all had run ins with issues of utilizing popular music and the artists that wrote them. 

So why mostly Republicans? There was actually an issue with Obama and Sam Moore on the Obama camp using the song “Hold on I’m Comin.” Sam Moore said, according to Rolling Stone “I have not agreed to endorse you for the highest office in our land. . . my vote is a very private matter between myself and the ballot box.” He added, however, that he found it “thrilling” to see a man of color run for the presidency. For the most part, artists align themselves with the democratic platform. Springsteen is the case study; his songs reflect and advocate for those who would align with democratic principles. Just to be clear, this is not a knock on the Republican Party or any of the Presidents/Presidential candidates but truly an observation and research.    

Barack Obama on Twitter: "Music has always played an important role in my  life—and that was especially true during my presidency. In honor of my book  hitting shelves tomorrow, I put together

OK, it is no secret that I am a Springsteen fanatic. I wanted to end the article with a summation of the connection between Bruce and political campaigns-political causes will come later.  Without question, the past 35 years has seen Bruce Springsteen play a supporting role in the campaigns of presidents, mostly democrats such as John Kerry, Barrack Obama and President Elect Joe Biden. In addition, he also played at the aforementioned McGovern event during the ’72 campaign, before the cover of Newsweek. So, why democrats? Easy, Springsteen has always sung about the “working man.” Although he articulates, in his Bruce on Broadway run, that was the first time he worked five days a week and to paraphrase- “it sucked.” Take “Factory” off of Darkness on the Edge of Town or singing about Veterans; i.e. Born in the USA. Springsteen brings the ideology of the Democratic party into pop culture.

Springsteen‘s resume for, political campaigns, really began to take form in the 2000s. In 2004 he endorsed candidate and Vietnam Veteran John Kerry with the headlining The Vote for Change Tour. For me, this was seeing the E Street Band at its finest. WOW, what an amazing show! That evening my father and I were rocking out at the Continental Airlines arena, deep in the swamps of Jersey. Not only were the E Streeters on point but special guest Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) came out and did “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Better Man.” Jaw dropping! In 2009, Springsteen played at President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration. In front of 400,00 he rocked the National Mall with “The Rising.” He also joined forces with Folk Legend and Folkways artists (see last article here), Pete Seeger. Bruce and Obama have had a close-knit relationship over the years. I could only speculate that the former Commander and Chief had the song “The Promise Land” (Darkness on the Edge of Town) in mind when titling his latest book – A Promised Land. President Obama accompanied the book with a Spotify playlist that includes Springsteen’s “The Rising.”  The most recent Springsteen influence was with “We Take Care of Our Own” off of Wrecking Ball that was used by President Elect Biden. The Boss and Politics have a long-standing relationship and I do not see that changing for as long as Springsteen is still playing four hour shows and melting the faces off of the fans.

Music and political campaigns have been used throughout the history of the United States. The second half of the 20th century saw the distinct change into using popular music but no matter the time period, era or song, the different eras of political history have one thing in common, presidential candidates have used music as a tool to connect with the folks.

Keep on Keeping on!  

Pin by Rocket Inc. on Amazing Bruce Springsteen Photos or Art | Bruce  springsteen, Music photography, The boss bruce

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Published by Mike Zagari

Mike Zagari grew up in New Jersey, USA, and music has always been a staple in his life.  Mike’s first musical obsession was Bruce Springsteen (still is), and his love of Rock 'N Roll and all genres only grew from there. Mike teaches 11th grade US History and uses vinyl as an avenue for teaching as well as historical expression. It should be noted that some students think he’s cool, but most think he might have lost his mind! But in the end, Rock ‘n Roll is history, and history is Rock ‘n Roll! Mike lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and three children.

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