Why ‘Hail to the Chief’ remains 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.”

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

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

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.

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    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.

    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.”

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