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Digital Classroom: Rock & Roll to the White House

Rock music has been the soundtrack for American presidential elections for decades.

Protest songs, campaign rally tunes, fundraising concerts, parodies, and even candidates' own musical performances are all regular parts of the campaign trail. Simon & Garfunkel temporarily reunited to support Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972. Four years later, Southern rock groups the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Marshall Tucker Band performed fundraising concerts on behalf of a relatively unknown Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter. The Violent Femmes, Frank Zappa, and the Clash rocked out against Ronald Reagan with some strongly worded songs in the 1980s. Fast forward to 1992, and it was Bill Clinton winning over baby boomers with a saxophone performance of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel." Neil Young, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and many others hit the stage in swing states in hopes of electing John Kerry in 2004. Guitar in hand, Bruce Springsteen stumped alongside Obama in 2008. And in 2016, Republican candidate Donald Trump provoked the ire of musicians such as Brian May (Queen), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), and the Rolling Stones with his unsanctioned use of their music at campaign events.

Lesson Plan & PowerPoint

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Classroom Resources

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Teachers: Preview all materials for appropriateness for your students.

Video: President Jimmy Carter

In this video, President Jimmy Carter discusses some of the ways that musicians helped his political career.



Video: Tom Morello Says 100% of Music is Political

"If you're not questioning authority, you're tacitly submitting to authority." Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello shares why he thinks all music—even Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez—is political.



Video: David Byrne Thinks Music Has the Power to Unify

When music is used in a political context, the goal is often to unify people behind a candidate or cause. "I don't know if music has the power to change people's minds as far as about political ideas, about issues, things like that. I do think it has the power to unify people," says Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee David Byrne of Talking Heads.



Artifact: Bruce Springsteen Outfit and Hat, 1984

Bruce Springsteen wore this outfit on the cover of his album Born in the U.S.A., which was released in 1984 and became one of the best-selling albums in American chart history.

The title song from Born in the U.S.A. has been used a number of times by politicians running for office. Soon after the song came out, Ronald Reagan said in a campaign speech: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen.” The verses of “Born in the U.S.A.,” however, present a critical look at the United States—particularly of America’s participation in the Vietnam War and its treatment of veterans. This actually ran against some of Reagan’s viewpoints.

This outfit, from the collection of Bruce Springsteen, is part of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s exhibit Louder than Words: Rock, Power, Politics.

Describe what you see. 
What do you observe?

  • What do items of clothing reveal about a given musician? Is musical style connected to what an artist chooses to wear—both publicly and personally? What does this outfit seem to reveal?
  • Look up the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A.” How would you describe the song’s protagonist? Do you think Springsteen’s outfit helps tell the story of the lyrics? Why or why not?
  • What kind of voters do you think Reagan might have been trying to appeal to by mentioning Springsteen and his music? Why might Springsteen’s clothing choices and style of music seem to represent that group of voters?

Bruce Springsteen Outfit and Hat, 1984

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Bruce Springsteen wore this outfit on the cover of Born in the U.S.A.



Historical Connections: 19th-CENTURY political Parody songs

Parodies—in which new words are written for existing melodies—have contributed to the musical fabric of presidential campaigns since the 1840s. In the 19th century, a candidate’s supporters or amateur lyricists would write new texts about a candidate and circulate the lyrics in booklets called songsters. Songsters would also include the titles of the popular tunes to be used with each text. (“Yankee Doodle” and “Auld Lang Syne” were two popular choices.) 

You can hear some of these 19th-century examples in the Spotify playlist below:

  • “Rockabye, Baby” set to the tune of “Rockabye, Baby” (Martin van Buren)
  • “The Harrison Yankee Doodle” set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” (William Henry Harrison)
  • “Lincoln and Liberty” set to the tune of “Old Rosin the Beau” (Abraham Lincoln)
  • “Just Before Election, Andy” set to the tune of “Just Before the Battle, Mother” (Andrew Johnson)
  • “If the Johnnies Get Into Power Again” set to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (James A. Garfield) 

Trax on the Trail

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Online Resource: Trax on the Trail

Trax on the Trail is a website where scholars, educators, journalists, students, and the public can learn about American presidential campaign music and gain insight into how sound participates in forming candidate identity. Learn more at http://traxonthetrail.com/. Trax on the Trail is sponsored by Georgia College.

Resources include: