The Scottish Rebel in “Hail to the Chief”

When this nation was founded, everything started at zero, including a personal song for the president.  George Washington was partial to “Hail, Columbia”, probably because it included the lines “Let Washington’s great name/ring through the world with loud applause”, but that never caught on.  Thomas Jefferson tried “Jefferson and Liberty”, but it didn’t survive past his administration.   Today we recognize “Hail to the Chief” as the presidential anthem.  This song was played as early as 1815, when a Boston celebration commemorating the end of the War of 1812 came on Washington’s birthday.  It became popular after the Marine Band performed it as Andrew Jackson was leaving a ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  President John Tyler selected it as the office’s theme song in the 1840s.

But what was the song’s origin?  Would you believe a fictional medieval Scottish outlaw named Roderick Dhu?  He appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake”, which was later adapted into a hit play.  For a new nation without a real cultural heritage, the play was a smash hit when it debuted in Philadelphia in 1812.  In an early scene, Roderick’s clansmen sing a “Boat Song” to him, which begins “Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!”   The lyrics were rewritten several times and today they are largely forgotten as only the melody is played.   But its origin is something to think about during next month’s presidential inauguration.



“Hail to the Chieftain” by Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, Jan-Feb 2017, p 11

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