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 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, or Black Roderick. 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 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 serenade him with a lusty "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, the "Hamilton" play of its day. It was staged dozens of times in major American cities with stunning costumes and elaborate sets. 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 named James Douglas. But American audiences loved the glamorous bandit who ruled by blood right and instinct, says Ian Duncan. He is 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 meaningful.
 
"Roderick Dhu is this Scottish chieftain who hates England," explains Joseph Rezek. He is 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 both a ruffian and ruler. And that was not unlike some of the early American presidents.
 
Even though Americans celebrated outlaws and rebels, we also indulged a conflicting 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." 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 haphazard, or democratic, fashion. It was first played to honor an American president as early as 1815. That is when 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 provoked 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 -- however poetic -- were not really a proper tribute for a U.S. president. So, the lyrics would be rewritten several times. In one early version called "Wreathes for the Chieftain," a peaceful olive tree replaced 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 dictates the Marine Band play it in B-flat major. It is played 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 (101)
  • aleahs-kul
    1/16/2017 - 11:12 a.m.

    I am not sure if I have ever heard this song because it doesn’t sound familiar. That is cool how there is a special song for the presidential politics. I like the name of the song, and I am glad that they didn’t change it because it sounds proper as it is. (52 words)

    • jennav-kul
      1/16/2017 - 02:47 p.m.

      I agree, I don't think that I have ever heard this song. I like the name of the song too and It's super cool that it is still around today.

    • brookeg-kul
      1/19/2017 - 11:54 a.m.

      I agree I haven’t heard the song either but the name is cool. I like how it says chief because the president is technology of chief.

    • jacoba-kul
      1/19/2017 - 12:33 p.m.

      This song is actually good for all formal events. It is somehow serious and not at the same time. It also makes a good entrance song.

    • sydney-kul
      1/22/2017 - 05:36 p.m.

      I agree with Aleah. I also have never heard this song. I also think it is super cool how the president has his own special song, and it is still apart of the tradition today.

  • jennav-kul
    1/16/2017 - 02:46 p.m.

    I think that it is cool that we play this song for every inauguration speech. I love when we follow traditions that have been around since George Washington was president. I did not know that this was something that was a tradition. I also did not know they played it twice.

    • matthewm-kul
      1/17/2017 - 12:32 a.m.

      I agree with Jenna because a lot has changed since having our first president but that one thing is still around. I also didnt know that they played it twice.

    • taylorm-kul
      1/17/2017 - 01:15 p.m.

      I agree following tradition is very cool especially when it has been around so long. I did not know they even played a song for the presidents.

  • matthewm-kul
    1/17/2017 - 12:30 a.m.

    I think its pretty cool that they made a special song for people in politics because they are pretty important. I think its important that we keep this around because it started with or first president George Washington.

  • pethan-dav
    1/17/2017 - 09:10 a.m.

    In response to "Why do we play 'Hail to the Chief' for the president?," I disagree that we should play Hail to the Chief for the president. One reason I disagree is that all of the votes are in and you should just deal with it. Another reason is that they blame the Russians because the democrats got outvoted. It says in the article "Hail to the Chief' was selected in a more haphazard, or democratic, fashion" which proves my statement. A third reason they did this in 1812 to celebrate an American president. Even though they think it's the right choice, I think
    it is not at all the right choice.

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