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The songs that elected U.S. presidents

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Presidential campaigns have long utilized songs as a powerful tool to connect with voters, inspire enthusiasm, and convey their messages. This tradition dates back to the earliest days of the United States. George Washington, for example, was celebrated in songs like "Follow, Follow Washington," which encouraged unity and support for his leadership. These early campaign songs were straightforward, aiming to build a sense of national pride and cohesion around a central figure.

Thomas Jefferson's campaigns, on the other hand, saw the introduction of more pointed and strategic use of music. Jefferson's supporters used fear-mongering lyrics to criticize his opponents, particularly John Adams. Songs from this era often contained sharp political commentary and were designed to stoke fear and suspicion, highlighting the intense partisan divides of the time.

As the 20th century progressed, the use of campaign songs evolved with technology and changing musical tastes. Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Happy Days Are Here Again" in the 1932 campaign is a prime example of how music can encapsulate the spirit of a campaign. The upbeat, optimistic tune symbolized hope and recovery during the Great Depression, effectively aligning Roosevelt's message with the sentiments of the American public.

In modern times, Donald Trump’s use of music at rallies has been particularly notable. His playlists are curated to energize and rally his base, featuring songs that evoke strong emotions and a sense of defiance. Tracks like "Eye of the Tiger" and "We Are the Champions" are chosen for their triumphant and combative tones. Interestingly, Trump's use of music often overlooks the context and original meanings of the songs, sometimes resulting in ironic juxtapositions. For instance, playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones at the end of his rallies adds a layer of unintended irony, considering the song's more nuanced message.

Overall, music in presidential campaigns serves as an emotional and cultural touchstone, helping candidates craft their public personas, rally supporters, and frame their messages in ways that resonate deeply with voters. From Washington to Trump, the strategic use of music remains a testament to its enduring power in American political life.

Eric Kasper is an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and co-editor of "You Shook Me All Campaign Long: Music in the 2016 Presidential Election and Beyond"

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 210-614-8980, email thesource@tpr.org. 

*This interview was pre-recorded and aired Thursday, July 4 2019. 

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi