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History's earworms: Catchy campaign tunes go way back

A campaign banner with a slogan derived from "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," used in the 1840 U.S. presidential election.
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When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the White House, he did it to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

It didn’t take very long for Young to issue an icy statement declaring that Trump did not have permission to use the song, and that, “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States.”

There’s just something about the campaign song that politicians can’t resist, and University of Michigan musicologist Mark Clague tells us that’s been true in America pretty much since the beginning.

Clague says that there were songs for George Washington and John Adams, though they were meant more for celebration than to sway voters.

The campaign song took on a more modern form with Thomas Jefferson, but, “The big explosion is in 1840, with ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,’” he says.

He tells us that many campaign songs in 19th century America followed the tradition of the “Broadside Ballad,” in which citizens wrote new lyrics to well-known tunes.

“‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,’ funnily enough, is written to a tune called ‘Little Pigs,’” he says. “I guess they forgot that when they were thinking about the president.”

Clague tells us that even though we may use different kinds of songs now, the key to a good campaign song today is the same as it was back then.

“One of the things that you want a campaign song to do is sort of immediately graft your popularity onto something that’s already popular,” he says. “Music has this power to sort of get inside our skin and sort of create this deep sense of connection.”

Some candidates have songs purpose-written for their campaign, but others choose to adopt or adapt a song that’s already popular in the public eye to create a sense of immediate recognition and connection, Clague tells us.

“Music is one of the things we sort of share with our friends, and I think that’s one thing that a campaign is hoping to do, is create this illusion that this political construct, this persona … is suddenly your buddy,” Clague says.

According to Clague, modern campaign songs tend to either mix or highlight multiple genres of music in an attempt to appeal to more distinct groups of voters.

“You end up with this kind of stylistic mixture to make a reference to young people, to older people, to sort of reach across racial divides and identity divides,” he says, “so there’s sort of an attempt to put it all together in one song.”

He points to Rick Perry’s “rock country rap anthem,” a reworked version of Colt Ford’s “Answer to No One,” and to Ben Carson kicking off his campaign with a gospel choir singing Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”

“There’s a lot of sort of feeling around right now,” he says, as candidates try out different songs and gauge the public response.

Clague tells us that we can expect the candidates to have chosen their “theme song” by the time the nominating convention rolls around next year.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.