Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why 'Hail to the Chief' remains unsung

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:24 AM EST, Sun January 20, 2013
Barack Obama is sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States on January 20, 2009. Barack Obama is sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States on January 20, 2009.
HIDE CAPTION
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
Presidential inaugurations and oaths
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Patriotic songs sung at inauguration won't include "Hail to the Chief"
  • That song is usually played, not sung. The lyrics might not fly in the political moment, he says
  • Imagine Boehner joining in to "Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation...," he says
  • Greene: Song has come and gone for presidential entrances; words remain unsung

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- There will be a good deal of public singing these next few days, during the parties, celebrations and services surrounding the inauguration, and at the inaugural ceremonies themselves.

Democrats and Republicans alike will join voices and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Politicians and regular citizens, regardless of where they align themselves along the liberal-conservative continuum, have long been able to put aside their differences as they blend their voices for certain time-honored lyrics:

"My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty..."

"O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain..."

But the song that is the centerpiece of every inauguration, and of virtually every formal public appearance by a president of the United States, will be heard instrumentally these next few days -- yet will not be sung.

The song is "Hail to the Chief."

Most people are probably unaware that it even has lyrics.

We're accustomed to hearing the United States Marine Band play the stirring, brass-heavy chords as the president comes into sight.

Why are the words to the song seldom sung?

When you read them, it's easy to surmise one possible reason. In our hyper-partisan times, it would be unrealistic to assume that members of the party out of power would want to enthusiastically belt them out.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Take this year, for example. Try to envision the television pictures of Inauguration Day, were "Hail to the Chief" expected to be sung by all the attendees.

President Obama appears from inside the Capitol, some of the TV cameras focus on Republican congressional leaders John Boehner or Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor -- and they are presumed to wish to ardently vocalize:

"Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,

Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all,

Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation

In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,

This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.

Hail to the one we selected as commander,

Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!"

Yes, those are the lyrics to "Hail to the Chief" -- and it's no wonder that few people have ever heard them. They express a lovely all-American sentiment, but--especially in our superheated political climate-- they possess the potential for some pretty awkward moments of public crooning.

Go back a few years. Try to picture, during the administration of George W. Bush, the trio of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Barack Obama raising their voices in song to warble in Bush's direction: "Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation..."

Or imagine, during Bill Clinton's time in office, the sight and sound of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and Trent Lott harmonizing as they gaze at Clinton: "Yours is the aim to make this country grander/This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief..."

If, in these political times, the words to "Hail to the Chief" sound a little odd, the history of the song is also not short on oddity.

CNN Radio: God and inauguration
1841: Harrison braves the cold
1977: Carter walks among the people

The phrase -- "Hail to the Chief" -- originated in Scotland in 1810 as part of a poem by Sir Walter Scott. The poem, "The Lady of the Lake," had nothing to do with the United States, or with the presidency.

But the story told in the poem's plot became a British stage play that made it across the ocean within a few years. Among the songs that came to the United States as part of the play was "Hail to the Chief," written by James Sanderson.

It was given new lyrics to honor the presidency, and reportedly was used in that context for the first time at an 1815 ceremony to commemorate the birthday of George Washington. It was played at the inaugurations of Presidents Martin Van Buren in 1837 and John Tyler in 1841, according to historians, and during the administration of President James Polk from 1845 to 1849 it became routinely played any time the president entered a room during public occasions.

Not everyone was in love with the song. President Chester A. Arthur, who served from 1881 to 1885, directed the leader of the Marine Band to compose a new one to replace it.

Fortunately for Arthur, the leader of the Marine Band at the time was a pretty fair songwriter -- a young Marine sergeant major by the name of John Philip Sousa. He came up with a new tune called "Presidential Polonaise."

Unfortunately for "Presidential Polonaise," it never caught on, and "Hail to the Chief" made a return. Sousa was undeterred; he would go on to write, among other patriotic classics, "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

President Jimmy Carter, in seeking to make the trappings of his presidency a little less regal, asked that "Hail to the Chief" not be played when he made public entrances. This turned out to be a highly unpopular decision. Carter would later tell CBS News: "One of the most unpleasant things that surprised me was when I quit having 'Hail to the Chief' every time I entered a room, but there was an outcry of condemnation." Before long, "Hail to the Chief" was back.

The Marine Band continues to play it as presidents make their entrances. The words, however, continue to mostly go unsung, and that will almost certainly be the case during the inaugural festivities these next few days.

In the spirit of the history of this -- and as a nod to what might have been -- we leave you with a parting gift of music.

On behalf of Chester A. Arthur, please click and enjoy the song you never got the chance to tap your feet to. Ladies and gentlemen, the Mount Prospect, Illinois, Community Band performs, for your listening pleasure, "Presidential Polonaise."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT