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Election year blues (and jazz and rock): UVa presents concert devoted to campaign songs

The latest poll results from the University of Virginia Center for Politics show “Happy Days Are Here Again” in the lead, with “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” a close second.

Social media fans have been casting their votes on X for their favorite U.S. presidential campaign songs in advance of a Friday evening concert in Cabell Hall Auditorium that will toast the first 25 years of the UVa Center for Politics with two centuries’ worth of tunes extolling support for candidates, ideals and unity. The musical frontrunners honored presidential candidates Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Henry Harrison, respectively.

“A Concert of Campaign Songs,” presented jointly by the University of Virginia Chamber Singers and the UVa Center for Politics, will trace the evolution of the genre from George Washington’s “Hail, Columbia/The President’s March” to Gerald Ford’s “Feeling Good About America,” while including the unifying factor of national anthems.

The evening’s special guests include Martin Luther King III, professor of practice at the UVa Center for Politics; Tara Setmayer, senior adviser for the Lincoln Project; and Brad Raffensberger, Georgia’s secretary of state.

“Lift Every Voice,” by James Weldon Johnson and Rosamond Johnson, has a place of honor on the program.

“He actually requested it, and he will be introducing it,” Kenneth Stroupe said of King. Thursday was the 56th anniversary of the assassination of King’s father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Stroupe said the professor will be heading back to UVa from a ceremony honoring his father in Memphis, Tennessee, to participate in Friday’s concert.

“He has chosen to be with us,” said Stroupe, who is chief of staff at the UVa Center for Politics. King will be introducing the cherished Civil Rights anthem in a place where his father spoke for the first time on March 25, 1963, adding layers of significance to the event.

The singers will perform with pianist Austin Robey.

The concert began with a chance encounter last summer between Michael Slon, professor and director of choral music for the UVa Department of Music and conductor of the UVa Chamber Singers, and Larry Sabato, founder of the UVa Center for Politics.

“I was walking to Bodo’s, and I ran into Larry on the path,” Slon said. The quick conversation included the seed of the idea: “ ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a concert of campaign songs from George Washington to the present day?’” Slon recalled.

“So many parts of it aligned perfectly,” Stroupe said. “We hope it’ll bring a bit of levity to an election year.”

There’s plenty for both music fans and history buffs to enjoy. Washington’s “Hail, Columbia” served as a new nation’s anthem for a time. “Adams and Liberty,” which lauded John Adams, was derived from the tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” an ancestor of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which will close the program.

Violinist Thomas Jefferson’s similarly named campaign song, “Jefferson and Liberty,” is set to a fiddle tune, “The Gobby’O.” Baroque violinist David McCormick will be on hand to perform it. Introducing the tunes for Washington, Adams and Jefferson in costume will be Bill Barker, who is known for his portrayals of Jefferson at Monticello.

Frank Sinatra wrote new lyrics to the song “High Hopes” just for John F. Kennedy’s campaign. Audience members also will get to hear “Hello, Lyndon!”, a salute to Lyndon B. Johnson set to the tune of the hit Broadway musical “Hello, Dolly!”

Irving Berlin penned “I Like Ike,” and Stroupe said the audience will see a 1952 animated campaign film produced by Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt Disney, that also promoted Dwight Eisenhower. That film, also called “I Like Ike” and populated by jolly marching elephants, “is very crude by today’s [animation] standards, but it’s charming,” Stroupe said.

“The songs have taken the context of their times,” Slon said. “In Jefferson’s era, it sounds like a fiddle tune. In [Abraham] Lincoln’s era, it sounds like a Stephen Foster song. The students have really enjoyed getting to know these different eras.”

Slon said that original campaign songs have been less frequent since the dawn of the recording era, but earlier in the nation’s history, they were “building upon a larger cultural phenomenon.”

“People are sort of bipartisan when it comes to music,” Stroupe added. “It brings us together with a common bond and a common interest.”

“Singing has tremendous communal power,” Slon said. “It has tremendous power to bring people together around a single goal. It’s not just a pastime or a fun thing to do. Music is meaningful and necessary for flourishing survival.”


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