Monday, February 20, 2012

The Top 5 Rock Songs About Presidents

To celebrate President’s Day this year, I thought it would be nice to do a little countdown of the greatest rock and roll songs about presidents.

I think the list speaks for itself, although I would like to make one honorable mention: The Showcase Showdown’s “Millard Fillmore, Last of the Whigs,” which was omitted because it was only ever available as a super-obscure indie 7” vinyl. And it lasts about a minute. And its words are mostly just the title repeated. But there’s something beautiful there, y’know? But I digress...

Okay, here’s the list, minus the Millard.

5. “He Was a Friend of Mine” by the Byrds (1965)

One of the earliest examples I’m aware of a rock and roll song dealing directly with a contemporary president, “He Was a Friend of Mine” appeared on the Byrds’ second album as a tribute to John F. Kennedy. Like so many early Byrds songs, the song came from Dylan, who used to sing it about Woody Guthrie. Although Dylan claimed to have written it himself, the song was found on an old record of prison recordings from which Dylan apparently lifted it; he then just changed around the words to relate to Woody Guthrie instead of a fellow inmate. The Byrds in turn pulled the same trick on Dylan, continuing the chain from an African American prisoner to a dustbowl refugee to a Catholic president (and if that’s not a statement about the breadth of America, I’ll never know it). The Byrds took Dylan’s sparse folk-picking arrangement and overhauled it, flattening its lopsided rhythm in favor of a rock and roll dirge in 4/4 time, with the group’s signature 12-string guitar and multi-layered harmonies filling the sound. Heard today, it’s a weird forbearer of the socially-conscious songs that would soon flood the rock scene, with the opening verse lamenting that “His killing had no purpose, no reason, or rhyme.” It wasn’t subtle, but hey, the ’60s stuff rarely was.

4. “James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants (1996)

There are two main types of presidential songs: Ones that are more general and subtle, and ones that are specific and hit you over the head with it. Perhaps the best example of the latter is “James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants, those catchy-tune mavericks of the geeky vocal dexterity. In a post-alternative, post-ironic, and, perhaps most importantly, post-Schoolhouse Rocks era, leave it to They Might Be Giants to enshrine the person often cited as The Greatest President That You’ve Never Heard Of. And this song gives you a good overview on why: “He seized the whole southwest from Mexico/Made sure the tariffs fell/And made the English sell the Oregon territory/He built an independent treasury.” All of which was true. And, in a move that would seem almost unthinkable today: “Having done all this, he sought no second term.” Exhibiting humble restraint in the presidential arena? Why, that sounds even weirder than a They Might Be Giants song.

3. “Christ for President” by Billy Bragg and Wilco (1998)

Taken from a project in which a British protest singer and an American alt-country band teamed up to flesh out unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, “Christ for President” was one of the Wilco songs, with the group setting Guthrie’s words to a country stomp. Like so many great Woody Guthrie songs, its success lies in its simplicity. Guthrie was a master at taking a complicated situation and presenting it in a way that made sense and stuck in your head (this ability was one of the key things that a young Dylan picked up from listening to Guthrie). “Christ for President” tears down any lingering notions about a separation of church and state, although from John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon in 1630 on down through Ronald Reagan’s invoking of Winthrop’s sermon 250 years later, any separation in the American identity was always tentative at best. Guthrie was clearly having fun with the words and Wilco’s music reflects that, as they freely mix scripture, politics, and irony. “The only way we could ever beat those crooked politician men,” they sing at one point, “Is to run the money changers out of the temple [and] put the Carpenter in.” Here, here – you got my vote.

2. “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” by Gene Marshall (c. 1976)

In the 1970s, before people had access to better recording equipment on their iPhone than the Beatles ever had in the studio, there was the “song-poem” industry, in which you could send a poem and a set amount of money to a small recording studio and get back a record containing your poem as a finished song. Given how weird things can get when such variables are mixed (the general public, poets, musicians, and the 1970s), the song-poem industry was rediscovered by hipsters in the early ’00s and celebrated it as an outsider art. One of the songs that became the most well-known was the ridiculously wonderful “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” by Gene Marshall. It seems that someone lifted passages from Jimmy Carter’s early campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best?, and mailed it in to be set to music. The song-poem company who received it turned it into a funky groove: “Can our government be competent?/Jimmy Carter says yes, Jimmy Carter says yes/Can our government be honest?/Jimmy Carter says yes, Jimmy Carter says yes…” before clearing way for the singer to recite one part of an early Carter speech, which also was apparently sent in as part of the “poem.” Like the best song-poem music, it’s impossible to gage where the irony begins and the sincerity ends: Did the person who sent in the poem love Carter or do it as a joke? And does the band’s performance of the song further enhance or mask such intentions? If it is a joke, who is it a joke on? The person who wrote it? The people who made it into a song? The president? Maybe it the whole thing was done by Billy Carter on a drunken dare. We’ll probably never know, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

1. “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” by Randy Newman (1974)

Written in the same year as Watergate, included on an album that reaches back at least as far as the Coolidge administration, and based on a sentiment that could be about any current president, Randy Newman’s “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” is the greatest rock and roll song about presidents. As a nation built upon capitalism, the economy has always been a central concern in America, from the cyclical “panics” of the 1800s to the Great Depression of the 1900s to the Great Recession of the 2000s. Pick any day in American history, and chances are there’s someone somewhere feeling the pinch and making up their mind to sit down and write the president about it. It’s a reflection of fine line the president is supposed to walk: Down-to-earth enough to understand the issues of the working man, but lofty enough to command the respect needed to run the country. With all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the presidency, it’s the down-to-earth side that often gets neglected. This is what “Mr. President” is all about, and with Randy Newman writing and performing it, he pulls no punches. Built it around a bluesy swagger, the song states its problem simply (“We’ve taken all you given/But it’s gettin’ hard to make a livin’ ”), expects no mercy (“We’re not asking you to love us/You may place yourself high above us”), and cuts no slack (“Maybe you’ve cheated, maybe you’ve lied/Maybe you have finally lost your mind/Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself”). It is not so much a lament or a protest as it is a reminder of the bond between the President and Common Man that transcends all boundaries of partisanship and politics: Namely, that every American has a right, if not a duty, to be able to walk up to the president, speak their mind, and have the president listen to them. Any president who cannot make the effort to do so is not worthy of the people they serve.

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