After baseball, sex, and racism, America’s favorite national pastime is presidential assassination. Virtually no other event crystallizes the American experience so succinctly, so completely, freezing in time the assassinated and the assassin, so that in one instant the powerless becomes the powerful, the great chief executive falls to the lowly anarchist, and the two become one. Anyone can grow up to be president, Americans love to tell themselves – but to grow up to shoot the president, well, that’s something that very few people can do. It is the one role in America that is more powerful than the president himself.
Four times in our nation’s history has this occurred, and four times the nation fell into a suspended mourning period. The fallen president becomes an instant martyr while the nation obsessively devours any new headline or news bulletin and turns any artifact connected to the deceased into virtual holy relics. For a country that was founded on the rejection of monarchy, every effort is made to keep the slain president not just to make sure the president is remembered, but immortalized. By the time that a miserable anarchist named Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York on September 5, 1901, the new medium of film was being used to shoot not just the president’s funeral progression, but a reenactment of Czolgosz’s execution, which many people took to be real (and many still do to this day). And to fill in where the cutting-edge technology of film couldn’t go, the oldest form of collective remembrance was used: the folksong.
Somewhere in the country, sometime after September 5, 1901, someone came up with the words and the tune to “White House Blues” – or more likely, based it on an even older set of words and a tune. Whoever it was did his or her job well; if Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers are any indication, they were still singing it a quarter of a century later. Poole was an archetypal country musician who loved drinking hard and playing the banjo, his life driven by a seemingly insatiable wanderlust for places to drink and play. He was nine when McKinley was shot, but if the news registered any trauma for him, Poole had long left it behind by the time he recorded the song with North Carolina Ramblers Posey Wilson Rorer on fiddle and Norman Woodlieff on guitar. Instead of grief, sorrow, or pity, Poole’s vocal captures something else entirely: a deadpan humor that’s drier than the dead president’s bones.
“Roosevelt in the White House, drinkin’ from a silver cup,” he announces in one verse, “McKinley’s in the graveyard, he’ll never wake up.” It’s a chiding, perfect line, at once both sacrilegious and hilarious. The whole thing is a joke to him – that poor bastard McKinley, aren’t we glad we’re not him! Or as Will Rogers (who also knew a thing or two about making fun of the president) loved to say a few years later, everything’s funny as long as it happens to somebody else. “White House Blues” proves that Rogers’ words are true, even when applied to presidential assassination.
But it would be an oversimplification to say that the inherent humor of “White House Blues” is all it has going for it, whereas its humor is merely the tip of the iceberg, the element that draws you in before unveiling its mysteries. It is a blues-labeled song that’s not actually in blues form announcing the death of a president who’s been dead for 25 years. Over the monotonous folk instrumentation, Poole spits out his words flatly, sometimes rushing them and sometimes repeating them, and in at least one point you can hear him flub the beginning of a verse entirely, quickly pull out, and begin singing the verse again. Maybe the session was running low on time; maybe Poole was drunk; maybe Poole simply didn’t care. We’ll certainly never know.
But it’s the words that keep the song going, providing a stream-of-consciousness panoramic American landscape on the brink of a new century. In one verse, the singer dryly jokes about the president’s death while in another he fearfully ponders his own; at one point, he watches the doctor grimly fold his specs over the dying president’s body, while in another he calls out the assassin on his evil deed, before oddly noting commercial brand of the gun used (it's an Iver Johnson); running throughout the song seems to be a narrative about a race between a horse and a train. Could this be about the riderless horse at the president’s funeral and the train that carries his corpse back to Ohio? Or perhaps the nineteenth century racing the twentieth century to find out which one is mightier?
If Charlie Poole knows, he isn’t telling, but if you buy him a drink, maybe he’ll make something up.
[This is the first post of what I plan to be a series - and hopefully one day a book - charting 100 years of American recorded music, spanning from 1891 to 1991, with one song chosen to represent each year. The goal is not necessarily pick the greatest or most influential song of each year (although that does sometimes happens), but rather to pick a recording that could be considered the most distinctly American. To my ears, anyway. I have a full (play)list of the songs that I'm always tinkering with, and maybe one day down the road I'll post that, if and when it is ever "finished." In the meantime, I plan to regularly post small essays like this one about the different songs in no particular order. Hope you dig.]