“Pistols, Guns, and Knives are Comin’ ‘

The sordid history of the campaign song.

Sen. Hillary Clinton

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton announced that she had selected her campaign song after a monthlong public vote. The winner: “You and I,” by Celine Dion. What’s the point of a campaign song, anyway?

Not what it used to be. In the 19th century, songs were the most popular way to sugarcoat political barbs. These tunes operated on a simple principle: When set to a boppy tune, a cheap shot at an opponent’s lifestyle, looks, or policies doesn’t sound nearly as ungentlemanly.

A classic example of mudslinging-via-song is John Quincy Adams’ ditty “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming.” Rather than directly criticize Adams’ political rivals, the 1824 campaign song illustrates the horror that will break out if the public votes for someone else: “Fire’s comin’, swords are comin’, pistols, guns, and knives are comin’ … if John Quincy not be comin’.” Later verses add slavery, plague, pestilence, and Satan to the guest list. (Click here to download a modern-day cover that replaces the words “John Quincy” with “John Kerry.”)

Campaign songs also figured prominently in the election of 1840. That election pitted William Henry Harrison, a Whig known for his heroism at the Battle of Tippecanoe, against then-President Martin Van Buren. The Harrison camp fired the first volley, releasing a song portraying their candidate as a man of the people and indicting the incumbent as a “little squirt wirt wirt.” Van Buren struck back at Harrison (and his running mate John Tyler) to the tune of “Rockabye Baby”: “Rockabye baby, Daddy’s a Whig/ When he comes home, hard cider he’ll swig/ When he has swug, he’ll fall in a stew/ and down will come Tyler and Tippecanoe.” Harrison embraced his opponent’s characterization in an upbeat musical retort: “Sure, let ‘em talk about hard cider/ cider, cider, and log cabins too/ ‘twill only help to speed the ball/ for Tippacanoe and Tyler too.” (Folksinger Oscar Brand performs the above songs and many more on Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996. You can listen to the album in its entirety on Rhapsody.)

In addition to hiding petty taunts behind peppy tunes, the campaign songs of yesteryear functioned as jingles. The goal was to create a catchy tune that left voters singing the candidate’s name as they fell asleep at night. Most of the lyrics were set to popular tunes, almost all of which were marches. (William Howard Taft dared to deviate in 1908, using a waltz for “Our Good and Honest Taft.”) When not making jabs at opponents, the songs were straightforward and name-oriented, with titles like “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah,” “Monroe Is the Man,” and “Grant, Grant, Grant.” The catchiest numbers, like Dwight Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike,” have lived on well past election day.

But campaign songs have taken a turn in the 20th century and beyond. Instead of replacing the lyrics to popular marches, candidates began appropriating existing songs as their own. That worked well for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who picked “Happy Days Are Here Again” for his 1932 campaign—the song quickly became a mantra for the Democratic Party. In the last few decades, though, with TV commercials the preferred platform for getting out a candidate’s message, the campaign song has been transformed into mere entrance music. Even the most attentive voters could have missed the fact that George H.W. Bush chose the folk song “This Land Is Your Land” or that Bill Clinton used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”

It may seem easier to latch on to an existing song than to write a new batch of lyrics, but this technique can be tricky as well. Ronald Reagan had to stop playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” when the Boss told him to cut it out. And a song may send an unintended message: When Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate in 1992, he strutted onstage to the tune of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

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Explainer thanks Isaac Kramnick of Cornell University.