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Monday, February 21, 2011

For Presidents Day 2011: A List of Songs That Mention U.S. Presidents

NOTE: To see our updated list for 2013 click here.

Happy Presidents Day! In honor of the holiday we've compiled a list of songs that mention U.S. presidents--44 of them, in fact, to correspond to the number of individuals who have occupied the highest office in the land.

You'll find that Richard Nixon has been a particularly powerful muse for songwriters, and that Al Stewart is the Doris Kearns Goodwin of songwriters--nobody has more POTUS references in more songs than he does.

This list remains a work in progress. If you know of a song we missed (there must be hundreds) please feel free to submit it using the 'Suggest a song!" link on the right side of this page. We'll update the list for next year!

Abraham, Martin and John by Dion. The Abraham is Lincoln, the John is Kennedy (and the Martin is MLK).

Apollo by the Alan Parsons Project, an instrumental that includes a snippet of JFK's 1961 "Man on the Moon" speech.

Ballad of Ronald Reagan by the Austin Lounge Lizards. "They called him Ronald--Ronald Reagan..."

California (Rutherford Hayes in the Morning) by Darryl Purpose. In addition to Hayes, the song also mentions Chester A. Arthur.

Campaigner by Neil Young. "Even Richard Nixon has got soul..."

(A Child's View Of) The Eisenhower Years by Al Stewart. "Elvis on the television, G.I.s in Korea/It's a child's view of the Eisenhower years..."

Dear Mr. President by Pink. The President in question is not identified by name, but this is clearly addressed to George W. Bush.

Diary by Andrew McKnight, about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. "Jefferson writes, 'Dear Diary, what have I done...?'"

Do The Clinton by the Foremen, a dance based on Bill Clinton's moves ("Hustle free trade and stage a bombing raid/Everybody do the Clinton...")

Eisenhower Blues by Elvis Costello. "Oh oh oh I got the Eisenhower Blues/Thinking about me and you and what on earth are we gonna do?"

Franklin Pierce by the Two Man Gentlemen Band. "There ain't nothing funny 'bout the death of Franklin Pierce..."

George Washington by Andrew McKnight. "The sign says George Washington slept here/Now there's a guy who had a couple of good ideas..."

Grandpa Was A Carpenter by John Prine. "...And voted for Eisenhower/'cause Lincoln won the war..."

Gush or Bore by David Roth. "I won't say who I voted for, or even if 'twas Gush or Bore..."

Hard to Find by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. "Johnny F and Jackie looked like they had it all..."

I Do the Rock by Tim Curry. "Carter, Begin and Sadat/Brezhnev, Deng and Castro..."

Inaugural Blues by Loudon Wainwright III features Bill Clinton: "Bill and Hill are our first couple..."

I Saw It On T.V. by John Fogerty. You'll find two presidents in this song, only one of them mentioned by name:
1. "A man named Ike was in the White House/Big black limousine..."
2. "A young man from Boston set sail the new frontier/And we watched the dream dead-end in Dallas/We buried innocence that year..."

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) by Bob Dylan. "Even the President of the United States has to stand naked..." Generic, but we'll take it.

James K. Polk by They Might Be Giants. "And when the votes were cast the winner was/Mr. James K. Polk, Napoleon of the stump..."

League of Notions by Al Stewart."Woodrow Wilson waves his fourteen points around..."

Like William McKinley by Al Stewart. "I'll sit on my porch like William McKinley/And I'll let the world come to me..."

Lincoln's Man by Ben Bedford. "A lover's note, a mother's prayer, and a father's curse/But I'm Lincoln's man, I'm Lincoln's man for better or for worse."

"Lindy Comes to Town" by Al Stewart. "Mr. Coolidge he will say, it's a public holiday..."

Line 'Em Up by James Taylor. "I remember Richard Nixon back in '74 and the final scene at the White House door..."

Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation by Tom Paxton. "I got a letter from LBJ/It said 'This is your lucky day'..."

Obama by Ridi. Because, you know, it's about Obama.

Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming..."

On To Victory Mr. Roosevelt by Loudon Wainwright III. Mostly about FDR, but the last couple of stanzas are about Obama.

Presidents Day by Loudon Wainwright III. "George was the first one--Abe was the best," Loudon sings, but he expresses some regret that "there's been more than one George, I'm sorry to say."

Postcards From Richard Nixon by Elton John. "We heard Richard Nixon say, welcome to the USA..."

Post World War Two Blues by Al Stewart. "Uncle Ike was our American pal/Nobody talked about the Suez Canal..."

Ray & Ron by Rod MacDonald. Compares the lives of Ray Charles and Ronald Reagan ("Ray was a musician/Ron was a president"), who died the same week.

Russians by Sting. "Mr. Reagan says we will protect you/I don't subscribe to this point of view..."

Semper Fi by John Gorka, which tells how Gorka's father met Eleanor Roosevelt. "Her husband was the President/Til he ran out of time/Her Franklin D. was history/And they'd put him on the dime..."

Superbird by Country Joe and the Fish. "It's a bird it's a plane, it's a man insane, it's my President LBJ..."

Sympathy For The Devil by the Rolling Stones. "I shouted out/Who killed the Kennedys..."

Teddy Roosevelt's Guns by Silver Mt. Zion. "Shop and save/Beneath the western sun/Bought and paid for with Teddy Roosevelt's guns..."

Ten Cents A Coup by Phil Ochs. "Here's to Nixon and Agnew/They are the stars of the stage and screen..." (Lyndon Johnson appears too: "I thought that Johnson was the devil...")

Tricky Dicky by Country Joe and the Fish. Richard Nixon appears as "Tricky Dicky from Yorba Linda/The genuine plastic man..."

Two Men In The Building by Steve Gillette, describes learning of the John F. Kennedy assassination while in Paris in 1963 ("Came a knock on the door, said the word was on the wire/They wounded your president when he drove into the crossfire...").

Warren Harding by Al Stewart. "Warren Gamaliel Harding alone in the White House watching the sun come up on the morning of 1921..."

We Didn't Start The Fire by Billy Joel. Mentions Harry Truman, Richard Nixon (twice!), Eisenhower, Reagan, and "JFK blown away."

William Howard Taft by the Two Man Gentlemen Band. "William Howard Taft got himself stuck in a bath..."

With thanks to Greg Hughes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sigh No More/Mumford & Sons

Congratulations to Mumford & Sons for their memorable joint performance with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers tonight at the 2011 Grammy Awards. We hope it makes up for being passed over in the two categories in which they were nominated (Best New Artist and Best Rock Song).

The London Evening Standard dubbed Mumford & Sons "The Bookshop Band" and wrote that their music, "like the best bookshops, is intimate, old-fashioned and filled with literary references." For our part, we hardly know where to begin with their debut album Sigh No More. Marcus Mumford told the paper that nearly half the songs on the album are inspired by authors.

Leading the pack is Timshel, inspired by John Steinbeck's East of Eden, published in 1952. The novel makes strong allusions to the Book of Genesis, particularly the story of Cain and Abel. A character named Lee, a Chinese-American domestic servant who spent years studying the Cain and Abel episode, translates the Hebrew word timshel as "Thou mayest"--meaning man is free to choose. Timshel becomes a key point of reference in the book. Lee says:

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order 'Do thou,' and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in 'Thou shalt.' Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But 'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. . . . Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this--this is a ladder to the stars."

The song's lyrics distill this as: And you have your choices/And these are what make man great/His ladder to the stars. The repeated line As brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand also resonates as the book focuses on two sets of brothers within the Trask family--Charles and Adam, and in the next generation Caleb and Aron--whose lives parallel those of Cain and Abel in significant ways.

Steinbeck's influence can also be felt in the track Dust Bowl Dance, an allusion to the milieu of his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Marcus Mumford even connects his favorite author's attitude to the experience of touring. "He talked about how a journey is a thing of its own, and you can't plan it or predict it too much because that suffocates the life out of it," he told the London Evening Standard. "That's kind of what touring is like. Even though there's a structure--you know what towns you're going to, and that you'll be playing a gig--pretty much anything can happen."

Other references: The album's title is a quote from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and the title track, Sigh No More, includes quotes from that play. Roll Away Your Stone paraphrases Macbeth (Shakespeare's For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black desires becomes Stars hide your fires/For these here be my desires). "You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer's going to call you up on that one," Mumford observes. The Cave includes references to Homer's The Odyssey--as we've seen in previous posts, a favorite literary reference in popular music.

The band's devotion to books extends beyond their music: They took part in a campaign to help save Britain's struggling independent booksellers. And when Marcus Mumford isn't writing songs, performing, touring, or reading, he runs a book club on the band's website.

East of Eden (KindleEdition)
The Grapes of Wrath (Kindle Edition)
Much Ado About Nothing (Kindle Edition)
Macbeth (Kindle Edition)
The Odyssey (Kindle Edition)