Why "Hail to the Chief"?

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Jan. 20 2005 6:01 PM

Why "Hail to the Chief"?

How it became the presidential song.

Polk needed some pomp
Polk needed some pomp

After President Bush took his oath of office at this morning's inauguration, the jaunty chords of "Hail to the Chief" started up right on cue. How did the familiar tune become the official presidential theme song?

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

The words "hail to the chief" first referred not to a president but to a Scottish chieftain. They come from a romantic poem by Sir Walter Scott called "The Lady of the Lake," first published in 1810. The poem was so popular it was quickly adapted into a London musical, which before long migrated across the Atlantic to the newly independent United States.

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The song, possibly adapted from an old Scottish air, was written for the musical by English composer James Sanderson. In America, it was quickly fitted with new lyrics and a new name—"Wreaths for the Chieftain"—and was first used to honor a U.S. president at an 1815 birthday celebration for the late George Washington. The first time it was used for a living president came when the Marine Band performed it for John Quincy Adams at an 1828 groundbreaking ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

According to the Library of Congress, Julia Tyler, wife of President John Tyler (who served from 1841 to 1845), was the first to ask that the song be used to announce the commander in chief's arrival. But it was another first lady, Sarah Polk, wife of President James K. Polk (1845-1849), who requested that "Hail to the Chief" be played routinely for presidential entrances. According to historian William Seale, Sarah Polk was concerned that her husband "was not an impressive figure, so some announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed."

The song hasn't been to every chief executive's liking. President Chester Arthur (1881-1885), didn't find it dignified and so asked U.S. Marine Band Director John Philip Sousa to write something else. Sousa came up with the "Presidential Polonaise," but according to the Marine Band's Web site, "it never completely replaced 'Hail to the Chief' and was soon abandoned."

Finally in 1954, the Department of Defense made "Hail to the Chief" the official musical tribute for presidential events.

And in case you're wondering, there are official lyrics to the song, although you rarely hear them. They go like this:

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 co-operation
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!
[Repeat]

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