MP3: “James Monroe: The Last Cocked Hat” feat. Marla Hansen
A Musical and Sadly Hilarious History of the American Presidency
Rock balladeers Christian Kiefer, Matthew Gerken and Jefferson Pitcher have performed a remarkable feat. They have composed and recorded 43 songs, one for each of the past and current presidents of these United States, and will release them as a 3-disc set titled Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs For 43 Presidencies, via the Standard Recording Co. on Sept. 9, 2008. They also plan on writing a song about our 44th President, and releasing it as a download come November.
In a presidential election year we Americans tend to mythologize the office of the US presidency and those who have held that office throughout American history. The candidates and their backers endeavor to persuade us voters that they possess the heroic, or nearly divine, characters of their predecessors (with a few not-to-be-referred-to exceptions) and are worthy to lead the nation. These songs-poems set to music, really-wittily, and sometimes not entirely politely, take issue with the mythology that those who have previously inhabited the White House (POTUS, as they are referred to today) were something more than human.
Even George Washington does not escape their satire. On his deathbed, in Kiefer’s song, he recalls the political lies he told through his famous dentures made of hippopotamus teeth. Chester Arthur, the almost forgotten Republican Party “stalwart” who succeeded the assassinated James Garfield, declares himself to be “the epitome of dignity” and, comparing himself to Washington, says, “Old hippo-teeth, you got nothing on me.”
For others there is no saving satire, only savage condemnation or, even worse, pity bordering on contempt. Andrew Jackson, in his deathbed song, “Benevolence,” tells the Cherokee Nation that he had to kill them to save them. And Harry Truman’s last thoughts, as imagined by Jefferson Pitcher in “Suits and Fine Trousers vs. Hiroshima,” are confused regrets that he didn’t remain a haberdasher and could escape the responsibility for having dropped the atomic bomb. A broken Lyndon Johnson, looking at Detroit in flames, the killing in Vietnam, and a fractured “great society” moans, “Lady Bird take me home to the ranch.” Ronald Reagan (“Such a Marvelous Dream”), in his final stage of Alzheimer’s, tells Nancy that he dreamed he was president in a dream like the one he had “where I was an actor out in Hollywood.” The disgraced Nixon in San Clemente imagines himself as Napoleon on St. Helena.
In contrast, Eisenhower (“When Ike Walked the Land”), with its image of ’50s America, drug-free, and watching wholesome television in small town houses with white picket fences, is wryly sentimental. John Kennedy is remembered by Matthew Gerken as a martyr whose death ushered in the evils that have befallen America since.
More listeners, in the context of present politics, will resonate with the treatments of George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and the current George W. Bush. Of George 41, Gerken ties the Bush legacy firmly to the voracious traditions of the Texas oil ‘bidnez’: “From the stalwart positions of Houston and friends is built a singular tradition: To desire more.” He concludes: “History will be very cruel.” Jefferson Pitcher, writing of Bill Clinton in “The Mighty Lion Will Not Roar Again,” is gentler to the 42nd president picturing him as wishing to be a second Noah who could somehow save the world.
And finally, the song about our current POTUS, “Though the Night.” Listeners will want to play it over and over again. This George W. monologue, as the writers imagine it, is, in its simpleminded self-righteousness, a sad but profound statement about what America and Americans are today.
Kiefer, Gerken and Pitcher have done a remarkable thing here. They have sung our history like no one since Walt Whitman.
OF GREAT AND MORTAL MEN: 43 SONGS FOR 43 PRESIDENCIES (STANDARD RECORDING CO.)
STREET DATE: SEPT. 9, 2008
1.George Washington: Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus (Feat. Vince DiFiore of Cake)
2.John Adams: Armed with Only Wit and Vigor and the U.S. Navy (Feat. These United States)
3.Thomas Jefferson: The Mouldboard of Least Resistance
4.James Madison: Zinger
5.James Monroe: The Last Cocked Hat (Feat. Marla Hansen)
6.John Quincy Adams: Death In The Speaker’s Room
7.Andrew Jackson: Benevolence (Feat. Califone)
8.Martin Van Buren: The Little Magician (Feat. Tom Brosseau)
9.William Henry Harrison: So You Don’t Have To
10.John Tyler: Hindsight Falls On Deaf Ears (Feat. Bill Callahan)
11.James Polk: The Other is Better / The Landscape to Transform (Feat. Monahans)
12.Zachary Taylor: Rough and Ready
13.Millard Fillmore: The Proof Is In The Pudding
14.Franklin Pierce: My Only Enemy Is Myself
1.James Buchanan: God Will Strike You Down (Feat. Marla Hansen)
2.Abraham Lincoln: Malice, Charity, And The Oath of God (Feat. James Jackson Toth)
3.Andrew Johnson: Was Ever Alone?
4.Ulysses S. Grant: Helicopters Above Oakland
5.Rutherford B. Hayes: The Beard of God
6.James Garfield: Seven Months
7.Chester Arthur: The Epitome of Dignity
8.Grover Cleveland: Bees And Honey
9.Benjamin Harrison: Kid Gloves Hands Surplus to Big Sugar
10.Grover Cleveland: Rubbermouth
11.William McKinley: Czolgosz’s Dream (Feat. Magnolia Summer)
12.Theodore Roosevelt: The Sherman Act Does Not Care
13.William Howard Taft: There Was No Longer Use To Hide The Fact That It Was Gout (Feat. Marla Hansen)
14.Woodrow Wilson: A Life Among Men (Feat. Jamie Stuart of Xiu Xiu)
1.Warren Harding: An Army Of Pompous Phrases
2.Calvin Coolidge: On Silence (Feat. Radar Bros.)
3.Herbert Hoover: Woe Is A Spoon-Shaped Heart (Feat. Marla Hansen)
4.Franklin D. Roosevelt: Illuminating The Bright Lines
5.Harry S. Truman: Suits And Fine Trousers Vs. Hiroshima (Feat. Denison Witmer)
6.Dwight D. Eisenhower: When Ike Walked The Land (Feat. Alan Sparhawk & Mark Kozelek)
7.John F. Kennedy: There Is No Plan
8.Lyndon B. Johnson: Ladybird Take Me Home (Feat. Steve Dawson)
9.Richard Nixon: 2 Under Par Off The Coast of Africa (Feat. Tom Carter)
10.Gerald Ford: Now You See It, Now You Don’t See It (Feat. Vince DiFiore)
11.Jimmy Carter: A Great Beam of Light (Feat. Rosie Thomas)
12.Ronald Reagan: Such A Marvelous Dream (Feat. Califone)
13.George H.W. Bush: It Was Foreshadowed Here: The Beginning of The End
14.William J. Clinton: The Mighty Lion Will Not Roar Again
15.George W. Bush: Though The Night
For More On The Project: ofgreatmoralmen.wordpress.com
Label Page: www.standardrecording.com