Happy Presidents’ Day weekend! Many of us will get the day off this Monday as we celebrate the commanders-in-chief of our past. What better way to reflect on the men who have greatly impacted the United States – for better or for worse – than to create a perfectly presidential playlist? I hope you enjoy these tunes that tell the tales of some of the executive legends, as well as some of the unknowns, from American history.
5. “He Was a Friend of Mine” – The Byrds
Originally written by Bob Dylan in 1962, “He Was a Friend of Mine” soon turned into The Byrds’ somber reflection on the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. The song features all the trademarks that made The Byrds one of the most popular bands of the 1960s: glorious harmonies, jangly guitars, and powerfully poignant lyrics. Perhaps most importantly, “He Was a Friend of Mine” paints a picture of a national leader who was truly respected and revered, a man adored by those who never met him.
4. “Abraham, Martin and John” – Emmylou Harris
Originally recorded by Dion in 1968, “Abraham, Martin and John” is a tribute to four assassinated American icons of social change, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. Emmylou Harris covered the classic tune in 1992, and her live version on PBS captured the gentle, reflective nature of the original. Backed by her live band, The Nash Ramblers, Harris delivers a touching ode to these four heroes from America’s past.
3. “James K. Polk” – They Might Be Giants
This tuneful history lesson by They Might Be Giants is a fun, rollicking tribute to James K. Polk, winner of the 1844 U.S. election. “James K. Polk” is a U.S. History teacher’s dream come true, with references to abolition, Manifest Destiny, and the Oregon Territory all carefully weaved into the tune. The clever gentlemen in TMBG also manage to sneak in Polk’s nickname, “The Napoleon of the Stump,” given to the eleventh president of the U.S. because “his oratory filled his foes with fear.”
2. “Young Abe Lincoln (Make A Tall, Tall Man)” – Johnny Horton
Johnny Horton’s 1960 hit “Young Abe Lincoln (Make A Tall, Tall Man)” is a great example of storytelling through song. Horton’s ditty is a charming stroll through both the factual and fabled life of our most famous president. From his humble upbringing (“he lived in a cabin way down by the creek, he ran through the dust in his bare feet”) to the Civil War crisis that consumed Lincoln’s presidency (“he heard both sides of the battle of rights, he hated to see those soldiers die”), “Young Abe Lincoln (Make A Tall, Tall Man)” covers all the major events of Lincoln’s storied life.
1. “Mr. Garfield” – Johnny Cash
“Mr. Garfield” was first recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in March of 1949. The folk song is an epic narrative of the events and emotions surrounding the assassination of James Garfield, who was shot by a deranged man who grew increasingly frustrated with Garfield’s refusal to give him a cushy government job. Johnny Cash’s version of “Mr. Garfield” is an even more intriguing blend of country and folk music, sung with all the charisma Cash was known for.
Do you have any presidential tunes that you enjoy? If so, share in the comments.