The song that many of us identify uniquely with the President of the United States has a surprisingly controversial history. Chester Arthur hated it, Ronald Reagan thought it was a necessary tradition for the office, and President Trump enters a room to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA more often than not. But this essential piece of Presidential entrance music is almost as old as America itself.
During the President’s Inauguration, “The President’s Own” Marine Corps band plays Hail to the Chief after 45 seconds of four Ruffles and Flourishes. The song is also most traditionally played when the President of the United States enters an official event, but there are no real rules for the song outside of the inauguration. The Department of Defense only asks that the song isn’t played for anyone other than the sitting President.
You wouldn’t know it from the orchestral renditions, but the song actually has lyrics, written in 1900 by Albert Gamse:
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!
The song itself can be traced all the way back to our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. At the time, the song was pop music, much like Greenwood’s song is to President Trump today. The Marine Band played it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1828, an event attended by President Adams. The first time it was played in honor of the Commander-In-Chief was for Andrew Jackson, at a similar canal event the next year.
Martin Van Buren was the first President to hear the tune played for his inauguration in 1837. John Tyler, who ascended to the Presidency after the sudden death of William Henry Harrison, was much derided during his term for the unelected way he came into power. To remind people who was in charge, First Lady Julia Tyler ensured the song was played whenever he arrived at events. The same was done for James K. Polk, who was a short guy. His wife Sarah wanted to make sure everyone knew when he arrived so he wasn’t overlooked.
Hail to that mullet, President Polk.
By the time Chester Arthur came to office in 1881, he hated the song so much, he opted to replace it with another song. Luckily for him, the leader of the Marine Band just happened to be the “American March King” John Philip Sousa. He commissioned Sousa to write a replacement, which the band leader did.
How well did that replacement go over? If you’ve never heard of Presidential Polonaise, you’re in good company — because most of America hasn’t either. The Presidents quickly went back to using Hail to the Chief.
By 1954, the Department of Defense made the song the official music of the President. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have to use the music. The President is the boss, after all.
He isn’t really bound by law or tradition to have the song played for him on every occasion. President Gerald Ford asked the U.S. Marine Corps Band to play his alma mater’s — the University of Michigan — fight song, Hail to the Victors, instead. Jimmy Carter preferred the tune Jubilation by Sir Arthur Bliss. Ronald Reagan, however, felt the office required more tradition and reinvoked Hail to the Chief.