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 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT