An Elections-Themed Song Stuff by Cary Ginell
The recent broadcast of Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” PBS series has brought new attention to the lives and presidencies of cousins Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the aspects of FDR’s unprecedented four national elections was the role music played in his campaigns. The years of FDR’s presidency were the high water mark of political campaign songs. Each of the four campaigns: 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, had a distinctive flavor, featuring songs meant to inspire votes in favor of or against FDR. Over 400 songs dealing with Roosevelt were copyrighted and published during these years, most of them obscure, but some becoming popular.
1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Herbert Hoover
At the time of the 1932 election, America was in the throes of the Great Depression, the worst crisis in the nation’s history. President Herbert Hoover had been chiefly ineffective in stemming the economic disaster set off by the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and Americans were desperate to find someone who could relieve the nation’s misery.
Along came New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the way to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which became the Democratic theme song at its national convention.
No hit songs came out of the 1932 campaign, but FDR’s first term did result in some tributes from well-known songwriters, including George M. Cohan’s “What a Man!” with proceeds donated to FDR’s Warm Springs Foundation, Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain’s “The Road Is Open Again,” sung by Dick Powell in a Vitaphone short promoting the NRA, and Al Lewis and Al Sherman’s “Roosevelt, Garner & Me,” a song suggested by entertainer Eddie Cantor.
1936: Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Alf Landon
In his first term in office, FDR was best known for instituting a raft of social reform legislation to jump start the economy. His work on behalf of the American labor movement brought the wrath of big business against him, and in 1936, the GOP nominated Kansas governor Alfred M. Landon to run against FDR. Republicans’ hostility toward “that man in the White House” was widespread, led by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who offered a daily prize of $10 to the best writer of a pro-Landon political parody, set to the tune of “Oh, Susanna!” A sample refrain: “Oh! Alf Landon / just wait and you will see / We’ll put you in the White House / Where you really ought to be.
Rural America’s support for FDR’s re-election focused on his repeal of Prohibition. After FDR soundly defeated Landon, West Virginia hillbilly songwriter Bill Cox reflected on what was important to country folk in his 1936 recording of “Franklin Roosevelt’s Back Again.” Here is the New Lost City Ramblers’ rendition of Cox’s composition.
1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Wendell Willkie
In 1940, FDR broke with historical precedent to run for a third term. By then, he was a folk hero; his New Deal reforms were working and the country was skittish about considering someone else when there was so much at stake with the Nazi regime steamrolling across Europe. The Republicans’ nominee, Indiana-born Wendell Willkie, was a Wall Street industrialist who had never before held public office. At rallies, Willkie was often serenaded by an 1897 parlor song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” while FDR was now as beloved by many Americans as members of their own family. The song “He’s My Uncle,” written by Lew Pollack and Charles Newman, was introduced by Dick Powell on the Maxwell House Coffee Time radio program. Broadway songwriter Harold Rome wrote “F.D.R. Jones,” which became a hit for Ella Fitzgerald.
1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Thomas Dewey
With World War II still raging, but definitely going the Allies’ way, FDR used the old proverb “Don’t swap horses when you’re crossing a stream” to win a fourth term, defeating racket-busting New York governor Thomas Dewey in the 1944 campaign. FDR’s fourth term, however lasted only a few months, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945. Many musical tributes were written to FDR after his death, but none more moving than folk singer Josh White’s tribute to “The Man Who Couldn’t Walk Around,” written by Abel Merropol, who also wrote the anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit.”