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Arts & Culture
Did pop music kill the campaign song?
It’s election season so all aspects of every campaign machine is working to get our attention. Some candidates use pop music in their campaigns, but it doesn’t always work in their favor. For example, Tom Petty forced Tea Party candidate Michelle Bachmann to stop using his song, “American Girl,” at her rallies. And candidate Barack Obama had to quit using “Hold On, I’m Comin'" because Sam – of Sam & Dave, the duo that made the song popular – said he had not endorsed the future President.
This would have been different, musically speaking, if these candidates had been running prior to the early 1900s. Back then, all sorts of songs were written especially for candidates. The Society of California Pioneers exhibit "Singing the Golden State" features sheet music dating from the Gold Rush to the 1930s on display through December 7.
“Singing the Golden State” is about the music of California, much of it from the time before recordings existed, when nearly all music was performed live. One section of this exhibit features a type of music not often heard these days: songs composed exclusively for California Politics.
“We have a section of California songs that have to do with California politics,” says curator James Keller. “And in fact, anybody who ran for office in the old days had a campaign song. And often they had more than one campaign song.”
One of those songs is called “Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson; California was Good to You.” It’s about President Woodrow Wilson and was written in 1916, four years before women could vote nationally.
But women in California got the vote starting in 1912, says Keller, “and they voted for Woodrow Wilson!” The song is a critique of Wilson’s failure to grant national suffrage for women in his first four years in office. “And in fact a few years later Woodrow Wilson did see it through, and we got the amendment that gave universal suffrage to women,” Keller explains.
This song was written before the time of radio, but Keller says it would have been played on record players and performed live. “I know of one place where I’m almost certain that it was performed, because I ran across a newspaper clipping that detailed the Suffragettes who were literally going to the doors of the White House,” says Keller.
The newspaper clipping reports that those female demonstrators spent part of their time singing songs about their cause. Keller says the California contingent of Suffragettes sang “Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson” often.
Keller has selected a couple of other policy-oriented songs for the exhibit. No recordings exist – just the written music. “One is from Upton Sinclair, the famous author,” says Keller. “But he ran for governor of California at one point, on the EPIC program. ‘EPIC’ was his slogan – End Poverty in California, always a good idea, but it was especially resonant in the Depression, when he was running for governor.”
It’s a song that could be picked up by a candidate today. The lyrics, sung to a lively march tempo, include:
End Poverty in California! And bring happiness to forgotten men,
End Poverty in California! And prosperity will come again.
It’s the battle cry of the real democracy,
And it means the end of all hypocracy.
End Poverty in California!
And Upton Sinclair will show the way.
The exhibit also has a campaign song from the Prohibitionist party called “We’ll Keep California Dry.” The goal was not achieved in the end, but Keller says, hudging by how many copies he’s found of the song, it must have been sung frequently. “One of the interesting things about that song is they kept a page blank in it, so that all of the different Prohibition Party candidates could fill that page by printing something about themselves, or run their own portrait or whatever points they wanted to make in their campaigns,” Keller explains.
The days of going to the sheet music store to find a campaign song are long gone. Now supporters of a candidate or cause can listen, while others sing to them. Or they can watch, while singing along on the Internet, and simultaneously sharing their views with other interested voters.
Whether it’s a song endorsing San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, or an occupy chant for the 99 percent, one aspect of campaign songs remains unchanged: they still have to persuasively deliver the message.
This story originally aired June 5, 2012.