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Everybody Loves Them Dead Presidents

Photo ©️ G. Marshall Wilson/JET Magazine Archives

From the Mississippi Delta to the streets of Chicago; from Mamie Smith at the Howard Theatre to Kingfish at Red’s, the blues has always been a fundamentally American genre of music. Although it sounds silly to say so, no other country could have given us “61 Highway Blues” or “Sweet Home Chicago”. In honor of Presidents’ Day 2021, here are eight classic blues tracks about a uniquely American subject: U.S. Presidents.

Charlie Poole, “White House Blues”

Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he’s taking his rest
He’s gone a long, long time

This 1926 recording by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers is the oldest known recorded version of this old-time string band classic. However, since President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, this song probably dates back much further. While its treatment of the assassination is almost flippant (“Doc come a-runnin’, he took off his specs/Said “Mr. McKinley, better cash in your checks/You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die”), the specifics of the historical event are fairly accurate, down to the maker of the gun that killed McKinley. The song was later adapted by other musicians to comment on the political events of their days—a Depression-era version had lyrics attacking Herbert Hoover—and was also adapted into the non-political “Cannon Ball Blues”.

Gus Cannon, “Can You Blame The Colored Man”

Now can you blame the colored man for making them goo goo eyes?
And when he sat down at the president’s table he began to smile
Eating lamb, ham, veal and roast
Chicken, turkey, quail on toast
Can you blame the colored man?

Educator and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington paid a historic visit to President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1901. At the time, it was unheard of for a Black man to dine with the president, and many white Americans, especially in the Southern states, were scandalized. Some Black Americans were skeptical of this meeting as well, criticizing Washington for what they felt was “Uncle Tom”-like behavior.

Gus Cannon’s satirical “Can You Blame The Colored Man”, from 1927, takes the idea of Booker T. Washington as an Uncle Tom or a minstrel-show buffoon and runs with it. The Booker T. character goes to “call on the president in a quiet and sociable way” and ends up eating extraordinary amounts of food, drinking enormous quantities of wine, and riding around Washington, DC in a hired carriage. The real Booker T. Washington, however, was a very frugal and serious person, and the intent of this song may have been to highlight racial and class inequality while poking fun at stereotypes about Black Americans.

Lead Belly, “Dear Mr. President/President Roosevelt”

President Roosevelt, he’s a mighty fine man
He’s been trying to get Italy and Germany to understand
About that war, about that war

This song, by famed blues and folk singer Lead Belly, is addressed to a different President Roosevelt from that of the previous songs. Recorded in January 1942, just weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, “Dear Mr. President” portrays the then-current president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as a peacemaker who went to war when there was no other option but to use force to fight back against fascism. While it is unknown whether President Roosevelt ever actually heard this song, it captures the feelings many Americans had about Roosevelt at the beginning of the Second World War.

Harmon “Peetie Wheatstraw” Ray, “President’s Blues”

Everybody’s crying, “Truman, ooh well well, please let that good man be
He’s gonna do more for us than Lincoln, ooh well well, and Lincoln set us free.”

Now Mr. Roosevelt, he was the other poor man’s friend
But Mr. Truman’s going to outdo him, ooh well well, right on to the end.

This 1949 song is credited to Peetie Wheatstraw, which is surprising, since the great blues pianist had died in 1941. “President’s Blues” was actually recorded by Wheatstraw’s follower Harmon Ray, who also recorded as “Peetie Wheatstraw’s Buddy”. Ray sings the praises of President Truman, and imagines all the great things Truman will do for Black Americans, asserting that Truman will be a better president than Lincoln or Roosevelt. Ray’s confidence is admirable, but despite Truman’s support of integration, and his inaugural address that affirmed the equality of all Americans, many of the reforms proposed by Truman were blocked by an unsympathetic Congress.

Louis Jordan, “Jordan For President”

If you want the man of the hour
Vote for Eisenhower
And ladies and gentlemen, don’t sit there and sob
Because Truman don’t want the job
But if you want a candidate that’s real cool
Don’t vote for the elephant or the mule
Vote for me! (Vote for Jordan for President!)

Jump blues musician Louis Jordan wrote songs that made people want to party, so it comes as no surprise that he used this 1952 song to announce his candidacy for president on the fictitious “Swing Ticket”! A satirical take on the presidential candidates of the day and their campaign promises, Jordan makes tongue-in-cheek promises to “see to it that every living American gets his portion—after I get mine” and that “I ain’t running no ‘chicken in the pot’ campaign, we all gonna drink champagne,” but also that “if you send me to the White House, we all will serve…time.” While not meant to be taken seriously, this song was radical at the time simply for depicting a Black presidential candidate.

J.B. Lenoir, “Eisenhower Blues”

Hey everybody, I’m a-talkin’ to you
I ain’t tellin’ you jabber, this is the natural truth
Mm, mm, mm, I got them Eisenhower blues
Thinkin’ about me and you
What on earth are we gonna do?

J.B. Lenoir was known for his topical and political blues, but the title of “Eisenhower Blues” made it a little too controversial for 1955. After the initial pressing, later issues of this song came out under the title of “Tax Paying Blues”. However, changing the title did little to cover up the subject matter, a scathing attack on the Eisenhower administration’s high taxes and seeming disregard for struggling Americans. Lenoir wrote many more protest songs before his untimely death in 1967, including “I’m In Korea”, “Vietnam Blues”, “Alabama March”, and “Down In Mississippi”. Sadly, many U.S. record labels refused to put out potentially controversial material, and most of these songs were only released in Europe, far from where they needed to be heard.

Otis Spann, “Sad Day In Texas”

I feel sorry, I feel sorry, I feel sorry for myself
I feel sorry, people, I feel sorry for myself
No, we’ll never have another president
And I don’t want nobody else

Chicago Blues Band member Otis Spann spoke for many Americans when he wrote “Sad Day In Texas” about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. In spite of his wealthy and privileged upbringing, Kennedy had been a champion for the civil rights movement, and his Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress after his death. Kennedy’s immense popularity, especially with the Black American community, may account for how different the grief-stricken “Sad Day In Texas” is from the irreverent “White House Blues”.

Little Walter, “Dead Presidents”

Hamilton on a ten can get you straight
But Jackson on a twenty is really great
And if you’re talkin’ about a poor man’s friend
Grant will get you out of whatever you’re in

Little Walter Jacobs’s 1964 B-side isn’t literally about dead presidents—rather, the Willie Dixon-penned song is a witty ode to the presidential portraits on U.S. currency. Jacobs and Dixon take us all the way from Washington on the one-dollar bill to Cleveland on the $1,000, with commentary about the comparative worth of each “president”. While some history buffs may take issue with the song’s inclusion of Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton in a list of “dead presidents”, this may be the first mention of Hamilton in modern popular music, half a century before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical.

Despite its initially shocking title, this is probably the least controversial song on this list. As Bob Dylan once said, “Let’s talk presidents everybody loves. Those would be dead presidents. The ones that jingle in your pocket or you carry folded up in your wallet.”

6 Comments
  • Sharon 8 months ago Reply

    Interesting “take” on presidential history. I love reading the lyrics, their language and rhythm.

    • Paloma Alcala 8 months ago Reply

      Thank you, Sharon! I’m glad you enjoyed this.

  • Carlos 8 months ago Reply

    Cool. As you probably know. We sang a version of White House Blues at camp, another of our songbook oddities.

    • Paloma Alcala 8 months ago Reply

      Hi Carlos! You clearly had more interesting camp counselors than I did. How cool!

  • Malcolm McNeil 8 months ago Reply

    A notable omission from this compilation is President Kennedy by Sleepy John Estes.

    • Paloma Alcala 8 months ago Reply

      Hi Malcolm! Yes, there were many songs about President Kennedy that didn’t make the list. In fact, the year after his assassination, Testament Records put out an excellent compilation called ‘Can’t Keep From Crying’, which was a collection of blues songs about President Kennedy. Highly recommended.

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