A very musical war: the story behind 'Hail to the Chief'

1841: Harrison braves the cold
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Story highlights

  • Joseph Rezek: "Hail to the Chief" originated in an 1810 poem by British subject Sir Walter Scott
  • Americans fell in love with the verse during the War of 1812 (which also gave us "The Star-Spangled Banner"), he says

Joseph Rezek is an assistant professor of English at Boston University. He is the author of London and the Making of Provincial Literature: Aesthetics and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1800-1850. Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book's research. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)On Friday, "Hail to the Chief" will be played one last time for President Barack Obama and then again for Donald Trump, immediately after he is sworn in as president. As Trump takes office, the song's forgotten 19th-century origins celebrating intransigence, white nationalism and populism are more relevant than ever before.

Joseph Rezek
"Hail to the Chief" originally honored Roderick Dhu, a fictional 16th-century Highland Chieftain continually at war with the English and their sympathizers in Scotland. Sir Walter Scott wrote the lyrics in 1810 for his long history poem "The Lady of the Lake," and James Sanderson composed the familiar melody for a dramatic adaptation. At the time, Scott was the most popular author in United States -- even though he was Scottish and a loyal British subject.
Americans soon made "Hail to the Chief" their own. As I write in my book, they were especially drawn to the song during the War of 1812, when they adopted it as a patriotic battle cry against England. (It was a very musical war, as it also gave us "The Star-Spangled Banner.")
We usually think of the presidency as a dignified office, but the brash chief Roderick Dhu is not at all a statesman. He is a fierce warrior and hard-headed outlaw banished for murder, a marauder who raids border towns at the edges of the Highlands. In the world of Scott's poem, he commands absolute loyalty from his vassals, who sing the song as they row him across a highland lake: "Hail to the Chief, who in triumph advances!" He scorns the established rulers of Lowland Scotland and is ultimately destroyed by his refusal to adapt to changing historical circumstances. He dies in prison, while another Highlander, Douglas, surrenders to the King and survives.
Americans thoroughly embraced Roderick's martyrdom and defiance. According to music historian Elise K. Kirk, "Hail to the Chief" first became associated with the presidency at the end of the War of 1812 during a celebration that coincided with George Washington's birthday (now honored as Presidents' Day). Re-titled "Wreathes for the Chieftain," this version celebrated Washington as a military hero -- a trait he shared with Roderick Dhu -- but also as something new: the father of his nation's peace and stability. As Commander in Chief, Washington was both a general and a statesman.
But it was Andrew Jackson, a Scotsman, who solidified the song's relationship to the nation's highest office. Jackson was the next general after Washington to be elected, a hero from the War of 1812 and the first sitting president for whom the song was played. There were many parallels between Jackson and Roderick Dhu. Like Roderick, Jackson was an outsider -- the first president from a Western state, Tennessee -- and he railed against the establishment. Like Roderick, Jackson rose to fame by fighting against the English, at the Battle New Orleans. Jackson was also a marauder and a thief who made his fortune through warring with Native Americans and stealing their land. Both chiefs projected defiant nationalism. Americans rewarded Roderick with popularity and Jackson with the presidency.
But the parallels stop there. Unlike Roderick, Jackson's thievery was encouraged by the American government. Unlike Roderick, Jackson was actually an insider, a false populist and wealthy slave owner who played up his humble beginnings while simultaneously courting elites. Jackson's notorious policies on slavery and Indian removal also epitomized the nation's white supremacist beginnings. None of these connotations were originally present in "Hail to the Chief." After Jackson, they were.
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Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump was elected as a war hero. But only Donald Trump is a rich insider who plays the outsider, a false populist who harnesses white resentment, and a man who built much of his fortune through dubious means. In more ways than one, Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. He is also the new Roderick Dhu: a brash, intransigent strongman -- not at all a statesman -- who demands absolute loyalty from his followers. Over time "Hail to the Chief" has transformed into the jaunty, familiar anthem of our President. But when the Marine Band plays it for the second time on Friday, some of its disturbing early meanings and associations will be revived.