Why do we play "Hail to the Chief" for the president?
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Amid drummed ruffles and bugled flourishes, "Hail to the Chief" will be played twice in ear-ringing succession at this January's presidential inauguration. It will be played for outgoing President Barack Obama. And it will be played again for incoming President Donald Trump.
But there's another chief in the mix whenever this song is played. And the peaceful transfer of power is the farthest thing from his mind. His name is Roderick Dhu. Some call him Black Roderick. He's a bloody-minded medieval Scottish outlaw. He is a fictional character. That means he is not real.
He hails from Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake." It is an 1810 narrative poem. Later it became a hit play. It was set in the 16th-century highlands of Scotland. In one early scene, Roderick's pike-wielding, tartan-clad clansmen sing to him with a "Boat Song." It became the source of our national tribute: "Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances! / Honored and blessed be the ever-green Pine!"
It's difficult to overstate the influence of The Lady of the Lake on our impressionable young country. The 1812 Philadelphia debut was a theatrical smash. You might call it the "Hamilton" play of its day. It was staged dozens of times in major American cities. Amazing costumes and fancy sets were included. The score was published. It fed the craze for parlor music.
"These songs were simply in the air," says Ann Rigney. She is author of The Afterlives of Walter Scott. The hero of The Lady of the Lake is a nobleman. His name is James Douglas. But American audiences loved the glamorous bandit.
That was even though he ruled by blood right and instinct, says Ian Duncan. Duncan is an English professor. He teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Locomotives, mines and even babies were named after Roderick Dhu.
No doubt the War of 1812, America's rematch with England, made the play's politics especially important.
"Roderick Dhu is this Scottish chieftain who hates England," explains Joseph Rezek. He is a scholar of British and American Romanticism. He teaches at Boston University. Commanding his people against Scotland's King James V, who was half English, Roderick was both a ruffian and ruler. And that was not unlike some of the early American presidents.
Early Americans celebrated outlaws and rebels. But we also indulged an opposing desire. We enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of authority. Perhaps this was why we needed national songs in the first place. (It's no coincidence that "The Star-Spangled Banner" is also a relic of the War of 1812.)
For a personal theme song, George Washington had experimented with "Hail, Columbia." Critics may have found it a little too laudatory. ("Let Washington's great name / ring through the world with loud applause.")
Jefferson tried "Jefferson and Liberty." ("To tyrants never bend the knee / But join with heart, and soul, and voice, / For Jefferson and Liberty!")
Neither stuck, thank goodness.
"Hail to the Chief" was selected in a more random, or democratic, fashion. It was first played to honor an American president. That was as early as 1815. A Boston celebration marking the end of the War of 1812 fell on Washington's birthday. But it really took off in 1829. The Marine Band performed the march as Andrew Jackson was leaving a Georgetown ceremony in Washington. The tune brought three cheers from the crowd. President John Tyler formally picked it as the official anthem for the office. That was in the 1840s.
But the bloody sprees of a highland fugitive were not really a proper tribute for a U.S. president. the lyrics were rewritten several times. That is however poetic they may be. One early version called "Wreathes for the Chieftain," a peaceful olive tree supplanted Roderick's mighty Scottish pine. A painfully bland mid-20th-century version called to "make this grand country grander."
Today the lyrics are all but forgotten. But the Department of Defense keeps close tabs on the melody. It says the Marine Band must play it in B-flat major. It is played only for sitting presidents. It is heard during stately contexts and at presidential funerals.
Still, it seems this bandit's tune has proved an apt anthem for a country. After all, America so loves its rebel roots.