During the past few weeks, we’ve noted some similarities between political campaigns in the 1860’s and the modern era. We’ve learned that mudslinging and “creative insults” aren’t new. We’ve reminded ourselves that Americans are opinionated.
There’s one aspect of 1860’s politics that we don’t see much anymore: political theme songs and music. Given the entertainment factors which our modern society embraces, it’s a little surprising that candidates don’t have theme songs…but then most folks don’t sing unaccompanied as they go about their daily tasks.
Music was important in early American history. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment (the way we think of it today), and music was a way to pass the time. An individual could sing or whistle while working, frontier families might gather for a corn husking and sing-along, and, by the mid-19th Century, “glee clubs” were formed to bring talented vocalists together for fun and performances.
While most of us are familiar with the famous marching songs from the Civil War and some of the Stephen Foster tunes have remained classics, there were thousands of other songs that have faded from memory. Certainly, some songs deserved to be shelved because they express extreme racism or negativity, but a lot of good music was “lost” and deserves rediscovery by historians and musicians.
Since music was so popular during the 1860’s, it is an enlightening look at politics of the era. Keep in mind that groups would actually sing these lyrics at rallies, parties, bars, or just to annoy or please their neighbors.
Perhaps it is a surprise that Abe Lincoln wasn’t a favorite of Civil War era song writers. Sure, he had music named after him, but the song crafters significantly favored other famous figures. Irwin Silber – a music researcher – has suggested that if the 1864 Presidential Election could’ve been won by the candidate with the most positive songs, McClellan would’ve arrived at the Executive Office.[i] It wasn’t until after Lincoln’s assassination that a plethora of adoring songs were written about him.
For example, one Civil War era song explored opinions regarding which famous persons would be remembered “One Hundred Years Hence.” Here’s the songwriter’s views on Lincoln and McClellan:
Abe Lincoln is going it with a strong hand,
But still he’s our ruler, and by him we’ll stand;
Let’s hope in the end he may prove he has sense,
For he’ll be forgotten a hundred years hence.
There’s little McClellan, of our army boast,
He never complained when removed from his post
The brave deeds he done bring their own recompense,
He won’t be forgotten a hundred years hence.[ii]
One of the most famous pro-Lincoln campaign songs from the 1860 Election was “Old Abe Lincoln Came Out Of The Wilderness.” Sung to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare She Ain’t What She Used To Be,” the lyrics have evolved through the years to celebrate more than Lincoln’s common man background and include salutes to his role as Union defender and emancipator – ideas which obviously wouldn’t have been included in the 1860 version.
The Hutchinson singers – a performing family popular in the North – sung and/or created pro-Lincoln and pro-Abolitionist songs in their popular shows. They popularized “Lincoln and Liberty” in 1860 which proclaimed:
Hurrah for the choice of the nation, –
Our chieftain so brave and so true, –
We’ll go for the great reformation,
For Lincoln and Liberty too! –
We’ll go for the son of Kentucky
The hero of Hoosierdom through, –
The pride of the “Suckers” so lucky,
For Lincoln and Liberty, too![iii]
The lyrics “Lincoln and Liberty” were new, but the tune was recycled from many past campaigns. One unique aspect of early American music is the relative simplicity of the tunes and how many different words could be set to the same tune. The tune for this particular song has Irish origins with many variations. (You can find a video with this song at the end of this blog post!)
Not to forget McClellan and the songwriter’s campaign for him, here is an example of his campaign songs from the 1864 Election.
We’re in Rebellion now, the greatest one in history!
And why it isn’t settled, remains to us a mystery:
Five hundred thousand slain and the battlefield’s all gory,
But Abe Lincoln takes it cool, it reminds him of a story.
Abe Lincoln is always joking, and widows are all weeping,
Oh husbands lost in battle, and under Southern soil now sleeping.
McClellan is our choice, the favorite of the nation,
One whom we choose to lead us to our former glorious station;
Our enemies they curse him; for they know he’s hunky-dory,
It’s about time to tell Abe Lincoln: this reminds me of a story.[iv]
Civil War era political music helps us understand the feelings of the people. It wasn’t an era where people vented or preached on Facebook and Twitter. But songs were a part of their society. Depending on what was sung or whistled, a person could send a clear message to his friends about his political views.
[i] Irwin Silber. Songs of the Civil War. (Dover Edition, 1995). Page 89.
[ii] Ibid, page 89.
[iii] Ibid, pages 90, 96.
[iv] Ibid, page 90.