In the days before super PACs or targeted political Facebook ads — indeed, before radio and television — songs were a common way for candidates to get their message across to voters.
Georgia Southern University’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences gave an audience of more than 200 at the Carol A. Carter Recital Hall a taste of those tunes on Tuesday evening in “Election Songs Throughout History.”
And these jingles weren’t necessarily as innocent as you might think.
“Before the advent of television, political candidates routinely used campaign songs to promote their causes and vilify their opponents,” said Allen Henderson, a vocal professor in GSU’s Department of Music. “If you think modern political advertisements are divisive, wait until you hear what some of our forefathers had to say.”
Henderson gave renditions of campaign songs by presidential candidates spanning much of American history, and political science professors Patrick Novotny and Richard Pacelle backed him up with historical context. The concert-lecture is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Great Minds Lecture Series.
“I did this same sort of thing when I taught at Austin Peay (State University) in Tennessee back in 2000,” Henderson said. “I just thoroughly enjoy doing these sorts of things.”
A band -- with members Chris Mitchell, the owner of Pladd Dot Music in Statesboro, and Georgia Southern students Robert Cottle and Chas Wilson -- backed Henderson.
The concert-lecture was nonpartisan and gave attendees the opportunity to ask questions. One question posed to the audience by the professors was, “How many of you feel that election songs have an impact on the way we vote?” The majority of the crowd answered with uplifted hands. Only a few said it had little or no effect upon their vote.
One of the most intriguing songs was “Tip and Ty.” It symbolized William Henry Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler. The song was to the popular 1840s tune, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”
Another song, “The Boys in Blue,” followed the election in 1876 of Rutherford B. Hayes. The song carried implications of the Civil War with “Boys in Blue” representing Yankee troops of Civil War fame.
Still another song, “Wilson – That’s All!” was written during the Tin Pan Alley days for Woodrow Wilson, who defeated Howard Taft in 1912. The song’s slogan, from the label of a popular whiskey of the day – “Wilson Whiskey – That’s All!” -- became an enormous success.
“Why Not the Best” was a song that followed Jimmy Carter’s campaign during his successful run for the presidency in 1976. A video production of that era presented the audience with a review of Carter’s term in office. The audience applauded the acceptance of a Georgia boy who became president.
The program lasted an hour but was chock full of singing and commentary by the professors. Loud rounds of applause followed each of the 10 songs. Henderson asked the audience to stand and sing the closing “Song of the Presidents” to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” and the crowd responded, the sound filling the hall. A well-attended reception followed.
“It is by history that we judge the nation,” Henderson said. “Elections have been going strong in America for over 200 years, and getting your message across is the main idea for these songs. Political songs help candidates portray themselves to the public.”