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)
  • demetricej-bur
    1/17/2017 - 10:29 a.m.

    It's no coincidence that "The Star-Spangled Banner" is also a relic of the War of 1812.We do the announcements in the morning at school.

  • granto-jen
    1/17/2017 - 10:32 a.m.

    It is significant to 1812 because, the songs were made in 1812 and it started to be important to the U.S. politicians so, they thought it would be nice to sing it for every inauguration from 1829 to today.

  • calebc1-jen
    1/17/2017 - 10:33 a.m.

    It is significant because the songs were from 1812 and it began to be important to the united states of America.

  • scarletts-jen
    1/17/2017 - 10:40 a.m.

    The song was made in 1812.

  • calebc1-jen
    1/17/2017 - 10:40 a.m.

    It is significant to 1812 because the songs were from that time and became important to the U.S

  • rileyn-kul
    1/17/2017 - 10:46 a.m.

    I think its great they play cool songs for the inauguration. I think they should tone it up a little though, they should play like a whole playlist with songs like, Colt 45, Thunderstruck, TNT, Broccoli, and maybe even some love songs like Party For Two when the first lady comes out.

    • dylann-kul
      1/19/2017 - 01:02 p.m.

      Nehlich is so right. WE need to get people involved based on the music. We can play hip songs. It would be legendary if we played Colt 45 at a inauguration. I think we need to play some Lil Yatchy.

  • charliet-orv
    1/17/2017 - 11:30 a.m.

    It's because the national anthem was created in 1812. So the "Star Spangled Banner" is important in America.

  • noemig-bur
    1/17/2017 - 11:45 a.m.

    The 1812 Philadelphia debut was a theatrical smash, the "Hamilton" play of its day.
    New facts for me.

  • isabellab3-bur
    1/17/2017 - 11:53 a.m.

    I agree with Natanm14-ste, I don't care if 1812 is important to the article or if they play a song for the president or not. I don't really understand why Tween Tribune would touch on this matter anyway, they should know that it would get people revved up. Why would you even consider Donald Trump being our president, honestly, the man has already said that he's not doing half of the things that he said that he was going to do. And not to mention, weather he is going to do those things or not he is a living devil," Let's make America great again." Does that sound familiar?! Well if you know your history it does, World War II, Aldof Hitler said almost the exact same thing." Let's make Germany great again." Donald Trump is a lying, godless man who is going to get us all killed. So, yes, I wouldn't really mind moving to Canada right now, Quebec seceding isn't as big as a deal as what the future has for us in the next 4 years. And I pray to god that he won't get elected for a second term. And on top of all that, he's the first President of the United States to not have and experience, did you know that it is harder to get a job at Wal-Mart than it is to become a police officer or apparently the President. In conclusion, I don't care if my comment gets posted or not, I just want Mrs. Burrow to read it, for her to not that I'm not going to act out on this and I going state my opinion weather you like it or not. Remember Mrs. Burrow, all I need you to do is read it.

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