Author: Daniel, Bert

Presidents' Day

Today is a holiday to honor our presidents. I hope most of you have the day off like me. Thank you, Mr. President for giving me a much needed day off! And some day within my lifetime I expect I'll be saying "Thank you Ms. President." I sure hope so. Lord knows we need to recruit all the smart people able to do (and more importantly willing to do) that difficult job in the future.

Our first president of course was George Washington. The holiday is in February because that was the month in which the father of our country was born. When I was a kid, we celebrated on the 22nd and always ate cherry pie in George's honor. But in 1971, Congress officially changed the date of the holiday to make it always fall on the third Monday of the month. A guaranteed three day weekend was a great idea, but somehow Congress managed to alter Washington's birthday celebration such that it can never actually fall on his true birthday.

The motive I think was to co-honor another revered president, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday falls on the 12th. Many states at the time celebrated both birthdays. (Not mine, we observed Jefferson Davis's birthday instead of Lincoln's). Apparently, Congress decided to split the difference between two presidential birthdays and cut out one unnecessary holiday in the process. All in all a pretty good idea perhaps.

Presidents' Day always falls neither on Washington's birthday nor on Lincoln's. So today let's honor all of the citizens who have ever had the nerve to assume the weighty responsibilities that come with being President of the United States. Millard Fillmore, you have my respect.

In this column I've often written about the seemingly endless range of subjects you can find in Bluegrass and Old Time music. What does the music have to say about our presidents? Lots. Here's just a sampling of relevant tunes.

There are several old fiddle tunes named for George Washington. Washington's March is still widely played. Fiddler president John Tyler was fond of playing Washington's Grand March. Hail Columbia, our national anthem before the Star Spangled Banner, was also referred to as Washington's March.

Jefferson and Liberty is an old fiddle tune, also called The Gobby O. It was used as a campaign slogan song during the election of 1800. Jeff City is a more recent tune honoring our third president.

Here's another campaign themed song called The Democratic Donkey:

Well they had me up Salt River till I kicked that stable down
I knew that Mr. Roosevelt would ride me into town
He mounted to the saddle and he grabbed the bridal reign
I'm back in old Columbia in the same old stall again

Presidential assassinations are a popular topic for songs. Bluegrass and Old Time have a long history of fascination with murder and mayhem:

Mr. Garfield's been shot down, shot down, shot down
Mr. Garfield's been shot down low

Or this one:

Six white horses come a drivin'
One black horse walked behind
Taking John Kennedy to Arlington
Down to the burying ground

And this one from Norman Blake:

See that train comin' boys?
Rollin' down Main,
Draped in black, she won't be back
It's Lincoln's funeral train

Old time music possibly has more to offer on the subject of presidents, but what Bluegrass fan hasn't heard this one sung by Bill himself?

McKinley hollered. McKinley squalled.
Doctor said McKinley, I can't find the ball
You're bound to die, You're bound to die

Roosevelt's in the White House, doin' his best
McKinley's in the graveyard
Takin' him a rest

And the father of bluegrass, author of Monroe's Hornpipe, happens to have has a presidential sounding name! Like Adams County Breakdown, the tune was not actually named to honor a president, but it will do for us Bluegrass fans. Adams County Breakdown counts for two presidents by the way. Back to Old time music, Cleveland's March to the White House counts for two as well, even though it's the same guy (# 22 and 24). For some reason modern Old Time genre composers seem to be fond of presidential themes. Nixon's Farewell by Curt Bouterse has been popular for quite a while and more recently we have Obama's March to the White House by Greg Canote.

Sometimes an Old Time tune can be worked into a new classic. Like when Jimmy Driftwood took the old fiddle tune commemorating Andrew Jackson's most celebrated victory on the Eighth of January:

In eighteen fourteen I took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip

There are few songs more familiar than from my childhood than the Battle of New Orleans. But this one probably is:

On top of old smoky
All covered with fleas
There sat old Truman
A' scratchin' his knees

I have no idea how many tunes are out there about presidents. Probably lots more. We've covered about a third of the presidents so far, so I'll let it go at that. All I know is that whether I voted for them or not, I have respect for anyone with the gumption to take on those awesome responsibilities. Happy Presidents' Day everybody!
Posted:  2/18/2013

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