In honor of President's Day, we should look back at all of America's presidents and their histories. Reading about it in history books can be boring at times, so listen to this musical history of presidents — both well-known and not.
“Washington On Your Side,” Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan and the Cast of Hamilton
C’mon, it’s a playlist about presidents and you thought there wouldn’t be any songs from “Hamilton”? For a solid opener, I wanted to include a song that talked about our first president, George Washington. However, what I like about this song is the fact that it doesn’t perpetuate the idea that all the founding fathers of the U.S. were best friends. There was quite a bit of contention and disagreement between them, and this song displays that well.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” They Might Be Giants
This was actually an original campaign song for our ninth President William Henry Harrison and our 10th President John Tyler from the 1840 election (which was covered by They Might Be Giants about 160 years later for some reason). The song sings the praises of Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, and Tyler, who was Harrison’s candidate for vice president. Fun fact: Harrison served the shortest time in office of any president, dying just one month in office, which led to Tyler being sworn in.
“James K. Polk,” They Might Be Giants
With their second song on the list, They Might Be Giants return with a very upbeat song about another one of the U.S.’s more overlooked presidents. Polk was our 11th president, and this song details his only term in office. Although “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was a cover, this one is a They Might Be Giants original, which really goes to show how strange this band is (though they are one of my favorite bands).
“Abraham, Martin and John,” Marvin Gaye
This is a cover, but I prefer this version honestly. Who doesn’t love Marvin Gaye? This song has simple repetitive lyrics that refer to the deaths of President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. The song laments the assassinations of all three men, and praises them each, since they all, “ … freed a lot of people. But it seems only the good die young.”
“You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight,” The J.B.’s
Here we have a very long-named song about President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. The song has everything a good funk song needs: a theme that’s really only half-serious, an infectious groove and a handful of ad libbed shouts. James Brown was very vocal about his serious political view, but this song was more of a tongue-in-cheek jab at one of the biggest presidential scandals ever.
“Funky President (People It’s Bad),” James Brown
Coming in with another song from Brown, this is one of the strangest moments of pop culture. Brown released the song “Funky President” about President Gerald Ford. However, it wasn’t an ode or song of respect to Ford. The funk in the song both refers to the genre of the music, but also the general gross and fishy-smelling deeds that Brown suspected when Ford pardoned Nixon before he was convicted for the Watergate scandal. This song has also been sampled all over rap music, from Will Smith’s “Summertime” to N.W.A’s “‘F--- Tha Police.”
“Black President,” Nas
Next, we have a song for the U.S.’s first Black president, Barack Obama. The song opens with a sample from Obama’s acceptance speech when he was first inaugurated in 2008. The rest of the song explains both how far America has come, but also how far we have yet to come, which I think is an important message to remember.
“New President,” Mt. Joy
Closing out the playlist, we have a song that was written about the 2020 election cycle and the band's desire to replace incumbent Donald Trump. And (although Biden will be in office for the next four years) time is always ticking, and eventually, we will always have a “New President,” so it’s important to look ahead.
One of my favorite quotes from my favorite president Teddy Roosevelt is, “Patriotism means to stand with the country. It does not mean to stand with the president,” which was from a political essay he published about 10 years after leaving office. This ties in well with an important message: most songs written about presidents are protest songs. Even though I tried to stay somewhat honorific for President’s Day, it is important to remember that no one is above criticism in the U.S. For the link to the playlist, click here.