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Music

Five brilliant songs written about US Presidents

@TomTaylorFO

It was the novelist Kurt Vonnegut who once wrote: “There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.” This is a notion that seems as true of the good presidents as it does of the band and as such these strange heroes and villains have been fodder for a great many cutting songs over the years. 

The transformative potential of music is a well-documented attribute. It can be transformative on a personal level; in the space between two headphones, the confines of a bedroom or the car radio, music is at our private beck and call to brighten days in one way or another. But it can also make a bold communicative statement. 

Below, we have curated five brilliant tracks that tackle POTUS in a range of different ways, from the satirical stylings of Randy Newman to the punk ways of the Ramones, and naturally, the eternal thorn in the side of the White House, Bob Dylan. 

5 brilliant songs about US Presidents:

‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’ by Ramones

The punk poet John Cooper Clarke once said of the Ramones, “They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round.” The flipside to this, of course, is that politics is sometimes handled best with a pinch of absurdity and that is what made Joey Ramone’s wild ways all the more befitting when he did venture into stiff-upper-lipped insanity of the White House. 

The song ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’ focuses on when on the auspicious date of May 5th 1985, when President Ronald Reagan laid a wreath at a cemetery where 49 Nazis were buried. Naturally, it caused a media uproar.

“What Reagan did was fucked up,” said the Jewish Joey. “Everybody told him not to go, all his people told him not to go, and he went anyway. How can you fuckin’ forgive the Holocaust?” Joey was determined to blast both berserk barrels, even if it did upset his conservative bandmate Johnny and, truly, that is what punk is all about.

‘Abraham, Martin & John’ by Marvin Gaye

Although originally recorded by Dion, Marvin Gaye’s soaring vocals elevated this ode to freedom fighters to the next level. As ever with his sugared yet acerbic style, he makes it clear that bliss doesn’t have to be ignorant.

The song was originally written by Dick Holler in 1968 and soon found itself entering the realm of being a staple as it wove its way into the Civil Rights Movement. Touching upon the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, in the wake of the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, it juxtaposed a sweet melody with atrocious realities with a cutting effect. 

If the rhythm section and production is the idealised view of the land of the free, then the rumbling bassline and unfurling hard truths of the subtle lyrics represented the true stifling and violent charge for the continued pursuit of happiness for everyone. 

‘Murder Most Foul’ by Bob Dylan

Whether it has been protestors picketing his property and calling for him to join them in direct action, critical lambasting’s of his born-again Christian phase or playing through pain as his hand recovered from a motorbike accident, it is clear that Dylan has braved hardships in his career and his noble battle through them is proof that he did it all for the love of music.

In 2020, as he approached his 80th year, he turned in yet another masterpiece. ‘Murder Most Foul’ was an embodiment of his entire career, from his profound sense of place within society, to the simple deliverance of music, and lastly his absolute love of the art form. 

He centres the salvation of music around the great atrocity of the J.F.K. assassination in a way that is uncompromising without ever being cynical. As ever, his lyrics are boldly unflinching, but he avoids being gratuitous about the day the President was “shot down like a dog in broad daylight”. 

The seminal last line to this song – “Play, ‘The Blood-stained Banner; play, ‘Murder Most Foul’ – contains all his wit and daring to deliver a career-long message of hope and comfort in creativity. 

‘He Was a Friend of Mine’ by The Byrds

‘He Was a Friend of Mine’ is an old traditional folk track of unknown origin in which the loss of a friend is lamented. The Byrds, however, played their own twist on the track and delivered up a homage to J.F.K. 

The touching track was elevated by the historical origins of the old anthem. When the chaos was fresh it helped to colour it with both poignant personal and historical context. As lead guitarist Jim McGuinn said: “I wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it’s one of the earliest Byrds songs. The arrangement used was as I’d always sung it. I just thought it was a good idea to include it on the Turn! Turn! Turn! album.”

‘Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man)’ by Randy Newman

Randy Newman hasn’t acquired the nickname The Dean of Satire without good reason. Throughout his career, he has held a whimsical mirror to the world in a display of wit and immense songwriting talent. However, he has rarely been as direct as he was with ‘Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man)’ from his masterful 1974 record Good Old Boys.

Although on the surface it might seem like it relates to the Richard Nixon regime, his neo-liberal policies have continued to unspool and cause widening social disparities. Thus, Newman has recently joked: “’Mr. President’ is a song I wrote back in the Pleistocene Era. But it’s become relevant again”.

For the song, he takes on his classically postmodernist approach and couple and almost Ragtime melody with his acerbic satirical lyrics that declare: “Maybe you only think about yourself/ Too late to run, too late to cry now/ The time has come for us to say good-bye now/ Mr. President, have pity on the working man”.