Modern presidential campaigns are amazingly proficient, crazily expensive high-tech wonders with their algorithms, targeted texts, super-annotated ad buys and unending barrages of “I am ... and I approved this message.” Even old shoe-leather campaigning is about getting out the base, not introducing the candidate to the masses. Twenty-first-century elections aren’t very down to Earth, and they aren’t much fun.
One of the great lost arts of yesteryear is the campaign song, battle cries that rang out for most of our nation’s history. They were the easiest way to spread the message and get people to sing your candidate's praises (and not in an ironic, "Obama Girl” way).
Stuart Schimler, a 29-year-old enterprise software salesman, is bringing the ole’ campaign ditties back — not for future elections (that ship more or less sailed with the advent of television), but as an authentic historical record. He founded American Pioneer Music in 2013, and the company recently dropped its first album, Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election. (The recreated music was performed with authentic zeal by a talented “young, unsigned New York City folk singer,” and that’s all Schimler will say.)
Schimler is no dilettante. His thesis at Cal-Berkeley was about the role of campaign songs between 1860-64, and he says there is a huge, long-forgotten trove to mine.
“Many university and private libraries have in their archive old song books, but amazingly, most researchers do not know of their existence, as little has been written on the topic of election songs. The pipeline is full!” he says. “American Pioneer Music will be able to explain to listeners the context of the lyrics and the songs. Many of the terms used have fallen out of fashion; therefore, a deep appreciation and knowledge of the period is required to breathe life back into the songs.”
The 1864 election was one of the most contentious in our nation’s history, taking place while soldiers’ blood was still being spilled on the battlefield. This was virgin territory: No other democratic nation had ever held an election during times of war. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln altered the parameters of the Civil War. No longer was it solely about saving the Union, it was about abolishing slavery. McClellan, a former General-in-Chief of the Union Army, seized on his former boss’s perceived weakness and ran on a platform of ending the war and maintaining the slavery status quo. It was against this backdrop that these patriotic and vitriolic campaign anthems rang out.
First popularized in the 1840 William Henry Harrison “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!” election, “songsters,” small pamphlets with lyrics (and these new things called “photos”) crafted by 19th-century PR guys, were widely-circulated to whip up partisan support. American Pioneer Music is bringing these antiquated ditties into to the digital age.
“Most albums that contain 19th-century music often cover the same songs, such as ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ or ‘Dixie's Land.’ Our goal is to bring attention to some material that has been overlooked and emphasize songs that have historical significance,” Schimler says.
That goal is certainly achievable and will be welcomed by American folklorists, mutton-chop era presidential completists and over-the-shoulder saxhorn players, but upon first glance, American Pioneer Music still seemed like an amusing novelty project to me.
“The market for 19th-century music is controlled by hobbyists, such as Civil War re-enactors and companies that produce songs for school children. Recently, the entertainment industry has started to produce more films and television series with historical themes; the music that we will make available can be much better suited for soundtracks that require authenticity and uniqueness.” Schimler reminded me of Lincoln, the Spielberg/Day-Lewis biopic that was all the rage four score and seven months ago; it made $182 million at the box office, so perhaps recreating America’s distant past isn’t a bad bet.
Schimler sent me Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election, which features 11 songs that played a role in the election between Republican Abe Lincoln and Democrat George B. McClellan (Spoiler Alert: Honest Abe won), and an additional final track that puts the whole thing into perspective. Here, for the first time, I combine my inner-Lester Bangs and Bruce Catton to review five tracks from this collection of 1864 campaign songs.
Track 1: “Shouting Our Battle Cry McClellan”
“Oh! We want no more high rates, no more galling income tax,
Nor ‘Greenbacks,’ such as Chase used to utter;
We hard specie payments need, the high duties to relax,
And bring down the price of bread and butter.”
It’s clear these old-timey songs aren’t all that far off from what goes on in the 21st century. Musically, the folksy strings and callbacks bring to mind Mumford & Sons. Lyrically, the song calls for lowering the price of household staples (butter instead of unleaded, but it’s the same idea), gets all self-righteous about Lincoln’s “smutty jokes” (if only Abe’s R-rated humor came with the CD) and goes negative with lines about “bogus generals … who boast of their red-tape education.” Where it loses modernity is, predictably, in race relations. Context has to be taken into consideration, but it is still troubling to picture a bunch of McClellan supporters swilling ale and bellowing, “We want no more rank niggers near the White House frying pan / Nor to sit at the head of the table.”
Track 2: “Abraham Ain’t It So”
“Who have enslaved the poor white man to free the Negro
And loaded us with tax and debt — old Abe, ain’t it so?
Before you were elected, Abe, at law we had redress,
A glorious Constitution and the freedom of the press;
But habeas corpus, now is void, the press gagged, also
And the Constitution broken too — old Abe, ain’t it so?”
This mournful acoustic dirge calls for adherence to the Constitution, lower food and beverage taxes, and a return to the gold standard, and specifically cites the lack of habeas corpus and “shin-plasters” (low-denomination paper money of the frontier days) as affronts to freedom. Ugly racist note #2: Lincoln supporters are referred to as “nigger-worshipers.”
Track 7: “Republican Campaign Song”
“We'll hang all copperheads high in the air,
We'll hang all copperheads high in the air,
We'll hang all copperheads high in the air,
If this were vinyl, the B-side would be the Republican side. It opens with a repetitive number that even kindergartners could warble. The song calls for the gallows for “copperheads” — Northern Democrats who wanted to end the war and who were seen as snakes. Obama and Romney had nothing on these 19th-century folk; back then, elections were bloodsport.
Track 10: “De Union’s de Best Road to Trabbel”
“Seceah used to larrup niggers, long 'fore day pull de trigger,
And buy and sell deir ebony stock accordin',
Now, Caesar, Cuff and Clem, de niggers, ‘larrup’ dem,
When dey kotch em on de odder side ob Jordan.”
Ugh. I’m not sure what those lyrics mean, but I know bigoted drivel when I hear it. Again: context, time and place — but I didn’t expect the ugliest song to be on behalf of Lincoln. The narrator is obviously a black man calling on his people to support “Father Abram” because they aren’t in the business of buying-and-selling slaves. Intellectually, I get it, but emotionally, I can’t get beyond its minstrel show pedigree — in no small part because we all know some Union dude brought down the house belting it out in blackface. Let’s move on.
Track 12: “On the Death of President Abraham Lincoln”
“Come bind his brows with laurel,
Place the olive on his breast,
And in the free Earth lay him,
In Honor's Shroud to rest.”
This is a beautiful dirge, a painful slice of Americana. Nearly 150 years later, a nation’s sad tears still flow.
Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election is charming in its anachronistic ways but also possesses a somber immediacy about the stakes America faced. It only took one listen for me to grasp why American Pioneer Music’s work is important: Authenticity is the virtue, and by bringing the actual lyrics to light, with in-your-face-racism and all, the company is providing a valuable resource that should at least appeal to creative history teachers and fastidious filmmakers. Music is elemental and provides an experience beyond words on a page. This album is a unique Civil War time capsule. While these songs made their rounds, the fate of the Union hung in the balance; it comes through loud and clear.