“Hail to the Chief, we have chosen for the nation.” So goes the lyrical intro to the boisterous tune “Hail to the Chief” traditionally played instrumentally at the arrival of the President of the United States.
With President’s Day on Monday, it’s an appropriate time to look at “Hail to the Chief” and its origins. The song’s title is from Sir Walter Scott’s poem "The Lady of the Lake," published in 1810. British songwriter, violinist and conductor James Sanderson then adapted the popular poem into a play, staged in London and then New York, in 1812. In the play, Sanderson used an old Scottish melody, which became the tune’s musical basis. Different versions of the song were soon also written, including lyrics by Albert Gamse. His lyrics became what we know as the current words to “Hail to the Chief,” though rarely sung. The first time the song was played to honor the U.S. President was in 1815 to commemorate George Washington’s birthday. On July 4, 1828, the U.S. Marine Band performed the song at a ceremony for the formal opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, attended by then President John Quincy Adams. The U.S. Department of Defense in 1954 made the song the official tune to announce the arrival of a U.S. President during official events and ceremonies.
What do you think of “Hail to the Chief”? Are there other patriotic tunes you prefer?
David Hildebrand, music historian, director, Colonial Music Institute in Maryland
Elise Kirk, musicologist and author of the book "Music at the White House: History of the American Spirit"