Hails to the chief: 70 songs about American presidents

Hails to the chief: 70 songs about American presidents

 

1. Devo, "Whip It"

Given Devo's red-plastic-ziggurat hats and bouncy synthesizer-driven music, most listeners in 1980 probably thought of them as little more than a novelty act, but the Ohio-based band was as sharp and politically aware as any in the early days of punk and new wave. Case in point: the band's biggest hit, "Whip It," which on the surface is about sex and sadomasochism. (The video strengthens that interpretation, as singer Mark Mothersbaugh uses a bullwhip to remove a woman's clothing. Hey, at least that idea didn't wind up in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.) But the song was actually inspired by the travails of beleaguered President Jimmy Carter, who was at the time beset by a recession, an Iranian hostage crisis, and an ultimately failed re-election bid against Ronald Reagan. Lyrics like "when a problem comes along, you must whip it" were meant to encourage the erstwhile peanut farmer, said Mothersbaugh: "I thought of 'Whip It' as kind of a Dale Carnegie, 'You Can Do It' song for Jimmy Carter."

2. Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothin'"

Barack Obama was swept into the presidential office on a wave of hope and optimism created by the promise of turning the country around. Now the time for hope has ended, and voters want results. Let's hope Obama fares better than Richard Nixon did in the early '70s, or else he might fall victim to scathing musical attacks like Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'." You know you've fucked up royally when even Stevie Wonder is pissed at you, and he really lets Nixon have it, comparing life under his administration to a nightmare, and calling him out as a liar. It's pretty vicious, but in the end, Wonder tells Nixon, "you brought this upon yourself." While Stevie soon returned to singing about love, babies, loving mankind, and love, he was absolutely right on this one.

3. The Legendary K.O., "George Bush Don't Like Black People"

There were many musical responses to Hurricane Katrina, but none more timely or devastating than this single by an offshoot of K-Otix. Watching in disbelief while the Bush administration fiddled as NOLA drowned, the group kludged together a sample of an intemperate ad-lib by Kanye West and their own version of the catchy backing track to West's "Gold Digger," and in the space of a weekend, created the protest song of the year. Twisting West's lyrics to blistering effect, the unforgettable second verse says it all: "Five long days, five damn days / and at the end of the fifth, he walkin' in like 'Hey!'"

4. The Honey Drippers, "Impeach The President"

The president in this classic funk-soul number goes unnamed, but given that the song first appeared in 1973, it's easy to figure out who they were talking about. Singer Roy Hammond engages in some playful James Brown-style back-and-forth with his band over the impeachment issue, but it's clear that they're more interested in getting down than getting political—and history has vindicated their position, as "Impeach The President" became a much sought-after master cut for rappers to sample in the early 1990s.

5. Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, "White House Blues"

First recorded sometime in the 1920s and made famous by its appearance on Harry Smith's legendary Anthology Of American Folk Music, this song takes an apolitical tack as it grimly narrates the shooting and subsequent death of President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York. Over a catchy folk-guitar hook, Poole sings about the botched surgeries that put McKinley in the grave, and comments wryly on the vagaries of political fortune: "Roosevelt in the White House, drinkin' out of a silver cup / McKinley in the graveyard, he never wakes up."

6. The Byrds, "He Was A Friend Of Mine"

The mournful folk traditional "He Was A Friend Of Mine" has been performed by a number of notable artists, including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Cat Power, and Nanci Griffith. But perhaps the most memorable version is by The Byrds, who altered the lyric about a friend's death to describe the nation's sorrow over John Kennedy's assassination. Songs about politicians aren't typically as emotional or intimate as The Byrds' "He Was A Friend Of Mine," which even 40-plus years later conveys the incredible sense of personal loss Americans felt in the face of one of the country's worst national tragedies.

7-49. Of Great And Mortal Men: 43 Songs For 43 U.S. Presidents

This book/CD package could've been an Inventory of its own, since it features a song for each president, excepting Mr. Obama, of course. The songwriting was handled by smarty-pants Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken, and Jefferson Pitcher, who took a lot of care in painting little funny or touching portraits of each man. It doesn't hurt that they enlisted some better-known talent to sing a few of the songs: Alan Sparhawk of Low, Mark Kozelek, The Radar Bros., Bill Callahan, and Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu all show up to throw down a verse or two. Of Great And Mortal Men isn't something to play front-to-back on a regular basis, but if you need a song about Calvin Coolidge at some point, you're all set.

50-51. Neil Young, "Campaigner" / "Let's Impeach The President"

Ripping on Richard Nixon was a popular pastime among rock and soul artists of the early '70s. Neil Young got his jab in early with "Ohio," but the contrarian Canadian later came to the disgraced politician's defense on "Campaigner," arguing that even "Richard Nixon has got soul." Okay, so the inclusion of the word "even" makes Young's praise obviously backhanded, but saying that Nixon was anything other than Mephistopheles himself was brave at a time when the president of the United States was an even easier target that usual.

Around 2006, popular opinion shifted so drastically against George W. Bush that talking openly about getting rid of him no longer felt like such a radical idea. True, Neil Young has never shared the music world's propensity for muddled political metaphors; still, his "Let's Impeach The President" was a surprisingly blunt way of getting the message across. Singing to the tune of Steve Goodman's "The City Of New Orleans" (appropriate, given Young's lyrical reference to Hurricane Katrina) he lays out his reasoning in simple terms: "for lying and misleading our country into war," "for spying on citizens inside their own homes." Of all the anti-Bush songs out there, Young's spoke loudest by being the most direct.

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52-53. They Might Be Giants, "James K. Polk" / "Lincoln, Washington And That Jefferson Guy"

Count on They Might Be Giants to deliver a presidential song that's simultaneously catchy and packed with useful facts. Did you know that Polk won a contentious election? That he was a powerful speaker? That he stood for western expansion and lower tariffs? That he served only one term because he did all he intended to do in office? Listen to "James K. Polk" just once, and you'll never forget any of that. If TMBG could write a song for all the other presidents, it would make American history class a lot easier.

A lot more has written about Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and the apparently lesser-known Thomas Jefferson than about Polk, which might explain why TMBG's 22-second tribute to the former trio is so terse—the sole lyrics are the words of the title, recited twice before an oddball keyboard refrain. This is a band whose songs casually dip into obscure, dense historical references, so its curtness on this song is particularly unusual. Really, more than anything, "Lincoln, Washington" resembles the theme song to a cheesy '80s sitcom—in addition to instilling feelings of patriotic pride, it's hard to also not imagine Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson striking self-serious poses before erupting in laughter as the picture freeze-frames to show their names at the bottom of the screen.

54-56. Robyn Hitchcock, "The President" / The Ramones, "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg" / Frank Zappa, "Reagan At Bitburg"

In the annals of poorly thought-out PR appearances, one of the few that might rival Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner would be Ronald Reagan's decision to observe the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II by skipping a visit to a concentration camp in favor of seeing a cemetery where members of the Nazi SS were interred. The ensuing controversy spurred no fewer than three prominent songwriters into acidulous replies, including the usually apolitical Joey Ramone, who also made early use of a chimpanzee/president comparison by derisively referring to Reagan as the ape who co-starred in two of his movies. Frank Zappa also touched on the incident on his obscure, posthumous electronic album Civilization Phaze III, and Englishman Robyn Hitchcock got in his shots on a song from 1986's Element Of Light: "The president is talking to us through a microphone / Like he's trying to pack his mother off to an old people's home."

57. Ed Gein Fan Club, "Ich Bin Ein Berliner"

It isn't exactly true that John F. Kennedy solemnly declared in front of thousands of people at the Berlin Wall that he was, like them, a jelly donut. "Berliner," like "frankfurter" or "hamburger," has a double meaning that covers foodstuffs and inhabitants of a particular city, and when JFK said "Ich bin ein Berliner," everyone knew what he meant. Still, the ridiculous image of the dignified Kennedy saying something so nonsensical proved too good for the facts to kill it off, and the "mistake" became a perennially funny part of his legend. In 1985, Minneapolis punk band Ed Gein Fan Club went looking for sacred cows to slay and nailed Kennedy to the wall for crimes against grammar and jelly donuts: "Standing at the wall and he's giving his speech / The stupid dumb fuck shoulda been impeached / Didn't even know what the fuck he said / And I'm glad Lee Harvey plugged him in his head." Surprisingly, few JFK-assassination theories have considered the possibility of a disgruntled pastry chef on the grassy knoll.

58. Ashford & Simpson, "Solid (As Barack)"

It was only a matter of time before Ashford & Simpson, one-hit purveyors of the everloving "Solid (As A Rock)," re-tooled their most famous song to big-up the new prez. Even so, the track is more than a little embarrassing, for two reasons: 1) Ashford & Simpson swiped the idea from a Saturday Night Live skit and 2) People who change the words of a popular song in order to endorse something just sound like they're making terrible commercials. To wit: "When he wrote The Audacity Of Hope / We could make a change… And now we're solid / solid as Barack / a strong foundation, that's what we've got."

59. Bright Eyes, "When The President Talks To God"

In his most blatant Bob Dylan mode, Conor Oberst penned this stripped-down, heavy-handed damnation of George W. Bush. (Get in line, kid.) Each stanza asks a drippingly sarcastic question about W's relationship with the almighty—does Bush consult the Lord on oil hikes and capital punishments? Sure he does. Do they golf together and drink near-beer? Absolutely. But does Bush, in his moments of prayer, ever "smell his own bullshit," and doubt that God is actually speaking directly to him? Oberst doubts it.

60. The Jazz Butcher, "President Reagan's Birthday Present"

One of the finest moments in the discography of quirky British songsmith Pat Fish, this tense, claustrophobic song—written in 1985 at the height of Reagan's Cold War paranoia—starts with a simple, shuffling beat and an insistent bassline. It increasingly ramps up the nervousness and intensity as a chorus chants "Red Russians shot my rocket down," until the singer, after screaming about red fascists, abruptly ends the song by crooning "Happy birthday, dear Mister President." It's a fine glimpse back to the days when the president seemed to think it was his job to freak everybody out.

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61-63. The Blind Robins, "That Goddamn Herbert Hoover" / "We'd Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover" from the Annie soundtrack

Herbert Hoover isn't one of America's most popular presidents, thanks largely to the widespread belief that he spent his term in office smiling benignly with his thumb up his butt rather than actually doing anything about the Depression. Hence the presence, in a musical based on the Depression-era comic strip Little Orphan Annie, of a surprisingly nasty song in which "Herbie" is invited down to a hobo jungle to acquaint himself with the end product of his do-nothing policies. The Illinois alt-country outfit The Blind Robins are even harsher in their judgment of the 31st president, but by the time "That Goddamn Herbert Hoover" was released, he'd been dead for 40 years, so he wasn't able to get the full impact of the song.

64. The Minutemen, "If Reagan Played Disco"

Late, lamented Minutemen guitarist-songwriter D. Boon had a particular genius for namedropping political-protest songs that turned a goofy premise into a powerful gut-punch, as in "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" and "Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing." That peculiar genius never works better than in the first lines of this rollicking number from the Bean-Spill EP: "If Reagan played disco, he'd shoot it to shit—you can't disco in jackboots."

65. Extra Golden, "Obama"

Half of the Afrobeat outfit Extra Golden comes from Chicago. The other half comes from Kenya, which makes for hurdles whenever the group wants to play together. Back when he was still a senator, Barack Obama—whose father is from Kenya—helped them out. In thanks, he got this fine song from the 2007 album Hera Ma Nono.

66. James Brown, "Funky President"

We don't know whether James Brown ever heard The Honey Drippers' "Impeach The President," but he couldn't have come up with a better answer song. While the Roy Hammond song was about Nixon, Brown claimed that his own tune was about the decidedly unfunky Gerald Ford, whose propensity was for falling down rather than getting down. But Brown paid him the ultimate tribute with this powerhouse cut, featuring a super-solid drumline and killer sax courtesy of David Sanborn and Pee Wee Ellis. Like "Impeach The President," it was also sampled to death in later years.

67. Camper Van Beethoven, "Sweethearts"

For the first four minutes of "Sweethearts," Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery sings about a man living inside an old black-and-white war movie, flying missions over China and dying romantically. "Angels' wings are icing over / McDonnell-Douglas olive drab / They bear the names of our sweethearts / And the captain smiles, as we crash." In the closing minute, Lowery reveals that the man he's singing about is Ronald Reagan, who's more than happy to see "buildings collapse" and "trains collide" if it serves his vision of Hollywood heroism.

68. Stephen Sondheim, "The Ballad Of Czolgosz"

For the most part, the songs in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins deal with president-killers, not presidents, though the musical also asserts that the same national character which produces leaders also produces madmen. Nowhere is this more plain than in "The Ballad Of Czolgosz," a song about the man who walked right up to William McKinley in a receiving line at Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition and shot him in the gut. In Sondheim's song, McKinley is a bootstrapping populist who insists that "In the U.S.A. / You can work your way to the head of the line!" And so Leon Czolgosz does, effectively killing McKinley with his own progressivism.

69. J.B. Lenoir, "Eisenhower Blues"

"Ain't got a dime," innovative bluesman J.B. Lenoir sings on this politically charged '50s cut. Then, to make sure nobody missed the point, he adds, "Ain't even got a cent." What's wrong? It's the economy, stupid, and who better to blame than the man in the Oval Office? Lenoir's label forced him to rename and re-record the song as "Tax Paying Blues," but the original version was the one that developed legs, and earned Lenoir a cover from Elvis Costello in the '80s.

70. Nas, "Black President"

It's telling and appropriate that a couplet from 2Pac's "I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto"—"and though it seems heaven-sent / We ain't ready to see a black president"—does battle with Obama's "Yes we can!" and "Change the world!" refrains on this track from Nas' officially untitled 2008 album. Nas fills his verses with all the hopes and fears of an African-American man seeing events he once thought were impossible. Will Obama be assassinated like so many other leaders who promised change? Will he sell out? Or will he maybe, just maybe, change the world? Nas ends with the question unanswered, giving way to the sound of Obama taking the stage and an unknowable future disappearing for a moment in a sea of applause.

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