Why do we play "Hail to the Chief" for the president? "Hail to the Chief" made its debut 205 years ago—in a boat. (Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images/AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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 inauguration, once for outgoing President Barack Obama and then 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, or Black Roderick, and he's a bloody-minded medieval Scottish outlaw, albeit a fictional one. He hails from Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake," an 1810 narrative poem, later a hit play, set in the 16th-century highlands. In one early scene, Roderick's pike-wielding, tartan-clad clansmen serenade him with a lusty "Boat Song," 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, the "Hamilton" play of its day. It was staged dozens of times in major American cities, with spectacular costumes and elaborate sets. The score was published and fed the craze for parlor music.
 
"These songs were simply in the air," says Ann Rigney, author of The Afterlives of Walter Scott. The hero of The Lady of the Lake is a nobleman named James Douglas, but American audiences loved the glamorous bandit who ruled by blood right and instinct, says Ian Duncan, an English professor 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 resonant.
 
"Roderick Dhu is this Scottish chieftain who hates England," explains Joseph Rezek, a scholar of British and American Romanticism at Boston University. Commanding his people against Scotland's King James V, who was half English, Roderick was ruffian and ruler both, not unlike some of the early American presidents.
 
Even though Americans celebrated outlaws and rebels, we also indulged a contradictory desire for 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," which critics may have found 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 haphazard, or democratic, fashion. It was first played to honor an American president as early as 1815, when a Boston celebration marking the end of the War of 1812 fell on Washington's birthday. But it really took off in 1829, when the Marine Band performed the march as Andrew Jackson was leaving a Georgetown ceremony in Washington, and it provoked three cheers from the crowd. President John Tyler formally picked it as the official anthem for the office in the 1840s.
 
But because the bloody sprees of a highland fugitive -- however poetic -- were not really a proper tribute for a U.S. president, the lyrics would be rewritten several times. In 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, dictating the Marine Band play it in B-flat major and only for sitting presidents in stately contexts and at presidential funerals.
 
Still, it seems this bandit's tune has proved an apt anthem for a country that so loves its rebel roots.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is 1812 significant to the article?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (10)
  • daltons1-ste
    1/13/2017 - 01:30 p.m.

    The song is a nice choice and it fits the presidency well. The song is nice, it fits america well too with the rebellious roots. this song is an odd choice but fits.

  • irisp-ste
    1/17/2017 - 09:14 a.m.

    The term "Hail to the Chief" actually comes from a poem written during the war of 1812. The song from today has taken the line into the poem into their own literature to salute the new commander in chief of the country. However, the actual lyrics of the song are no longer recognized as much as the melody.

  • mirandaf1-pay
    1/18/2017 - 08:14 a.m.

    The early era of the 1800's, there was a sense of general nationalism permeating the country, and as the war of 1812 rolled around, hatred for foreigners, as well as the trying war, brought together the nation, though, a bit forcefully. There was a huge rally for not only nativism (supremacy of those native-born), but to have some sort of unity to keep the nation happy and others afraid, all thoughts championed during the war of 1812.

  • alexiss1-bri
    1/18/2017 - 10:46 a.m.

    1812 was significant to the artical because "No doubt the War of 1812, America's rematch with England, made the play's politics especially resonant." This is the reason 1812 was significat to teh artical.

  • johannam-bri
    1/18/2017 - 10:46 a.m.

    1812 is sighnificant because America's rematch with England. The article states "No doubt the War of 1812, America's rematch with England, made the play's politics especially resonant." This shows why 1812 is sighnificant.

  • truzellm-bri
    1/18/2017 - 10:54 a.m.

    1812 is significant to the artcle because that was went America rematched with england. I know this because the article said, "No doubt the War of 1812, America's rematch with England, made the play's politics especially resonant." I choosen this sentence because it shows the impotance about the war of 1812.

  • zakrym-ste
    1/24/2017 - 12:25 p.m.

    This comes from a poem in the War of 1812. It is meant to pay tribute our president. The song is no longer recognized as a melody though

  • noahr-ste
    1/27/2017 - 12:49 p.m.

    It is a good role of the song to be able to fill that void. It was a poem from 1812 but it works perfect for the thing it does.

  • alexm1-ver
    2/10/2017 - 10:01 a.m.

    I don't really like the idea of having a song about rebellion, and war for the switching of presidents. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It makes it seem we are hoping for war. That is just my opinion.

  • nickm1-pla
    2/14/2017 - 10:08 a.m.

    Hail to the chief was actually from a Scottish play called "Lady of the Lake" which achieved immense popularity in the U.S. in the early 1800's with the advent of the War of 1812. Americans related to the protagonist's struggle against England. Furthermore, the score was published, making it available for parlor groups to perform.

    This article demonstrates civic engagement by explaining a long standing tradition of the U.S. presidency. Most American citizens probably aren't aware of the anthem's origins and this article does a great job of explaining them.

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