Although George Washington won two presidential terms with little opposition, the elections of 1796 and 1800 that pitted the Federalists against the Republicans forever changed campaigns for the nation’s highest office. Once this shift occurred, partisans quickly discovered that one of the most persuasive tools to sway voters was the campaign song. Throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, election songs were important campaign tools. Whether performed in public or private, sung solo or in chorus, played by a marching band or player piano, they echoed candidates’ names, reiterated their platforms, or repeated campaign slogans. Cover art was often used to introduce candidates to a rural public or to mercilessly satirize the faults and frailties of an opponent. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, political parties turned more and more to the newspapers, radio and television, which provided immediate access to mass audiences. Although composers still wrote music in celebration of their favorite candidates, sheet music became less and less significant in campaigning.
Voices, Votes, Victory: Presidential Campaign Songs presents a sampling of the rich collection of campaign songs housed in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. From pocket-sized songsters to sheet music, the wide variety of subjects reflect virtually every party platform and national issue on which presidential elections have focused. This look at presidential campaign songs, whose melodies so faithfully mirrored contemporary popular music and whose lyrics ranged from broad satire to sincere political expression, demonstrates just how effective a messenger music can be.
This exhibition is available online only.