The Music of Politics
To my readers, in October when the soggy heat lifts for cooler air, picture your correspondent in August, peering toward the November election. Yes, Virginia, this is a music column.
During late August, Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic convention, “introducing herself to the American people,” telling her “American story,” a fine speech but how I shrink from the clichés that windbag commentators and speechwriters lay on us. More striking is Stevie Wonder’s music as a soundtrack to Obama’s rise.
When Michelle finished, the Obama daughters came on stage to “Isn’t She Lovely?” – which Stevie recorded a few decades ago when his daughter was born, you can hear the baby’s cries on the soundtrack. Lovely song. Barack’s paean to his wife. Nice, solid, mainstream love in the USA. But will it sell in Ohio where “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” another mainstay of the Wonder-Obama canon, applies to the controversial GOP win of 2004?
Politicians have needed music since the first Neanderthal crawled out of the cave, lay down his dripping jawbone-of-the-ass and told the masses, “There’s meat over the hills. Follow me.” You know he had a guy behind him pounding a drum.
Huey Long marched in front of the Louisiana State University band, waving a baton; he had his own song, “Every Man A King,” which Randy Newman revived a few years after men landed men on the moon, securing the Kingfish’s theme song for time, well, not immemorial but until the next Huey-movie captures his bizarre fusion of populist lyricism and Stalinism without murder.
The first law of politics is to make people like you. Jimmie Davis got elected in 1943 by traveling the state with a band singing his famous song, “You Are My Sunshine.” He won again in ’59, the year outgoing Gov. Earl Long, ineligible for another term, ran for lieutenant governor. Long lost because of a mental breakdown and open affair with stripper Blaze Starr. “Uncle Earl” carried the six-piece J. W. Thompson Band on the hustings with a young guitar-playing singer named Jay Chevalier. Chevalier’s “The Ballad of Earl K. Long” became a radio hit during that campaign.
Music was more pivotal to politics before TV saturation. New Orleans Mayor Chep Morrison ran for governor in 1959 with a Dixieland band, whose name escapes Chevalier, a longtime Kenner resident who also sang for the campaigns of the late sheriff, Harry Lee. “The Jimmie Davis band all went on state payroll after he won,” Chevalier explains. “One of ’em was a strawberry inspector. One of ’em was a bridge inspector. One of ’em was a sweet-potato inspector – and you know there were a lot of sweet potatoes needed inspecting. One of ’em was a road inspector. Every time he rode over a road he’d see how it was doing.”
Did George McGovern have a campaign song in 1972? He lost so bad it doesn’t matter.
A campaign song speaks volumes about the vision of a candidate. George Bush the elder traveled the land in 1988, listening to Bobby McFerrin’s reggae styled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” rather marvelous when you think of it – that craggy, Eastern-pedigreed CIA cold warrior who reinvented himself in the Texas oil patch, advancing from Reagan’s vice-president to a run for the big house, closing his eyes, smiling in stolen reveries as Lee Atwater’s attack ads destroyed Michael Dukakis. Did Dukakis have a song? Boff.
The Republicans nominated the elder Bush at their convention in the Superdome that summer. WWOZ, the community radio station and voice of the music culture, provided space for NPR that week. The high moment, for me, was not when Dan Quayle got off the steamboat and jumped around like a cheerleader on being named running mate, but when the late Don Jamison, the deejay known as Big Moose, actually said: “We dedicate this next song … for Casper Weinberger.” Big Moose honored the Secretary of Defense with Fats singing “Blueberry Hill.” I still wonder if some irony I missed was embedded there. Ah, Moose, we hardly new ye.
Sen. John McCain this spring joked about bombing Tehran in verbal riff on the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” – “ba-ba-bah!” When a reporter asked how he would respond to critics charging he was insensitive, he said: “Insensitive to what? The Iranians?” The man suffers no lack of bravura in his oxygen supply. Singer Jackson Browne sued McCain for using his song “Running On Empty” in an attack ad against Obama. You can bet your back pay McCain will have a song.