Composers Datebook®

with host John Zech

Wednesday, July 4

Hail to the Chief!

Synopsis

Once, when someone asked JFK what his favorite song might be, the waggish former president responded: “Well, ‘Hail to the Chief’ has a nice ring to it.” As most people know, “Hail to the Chief” is the tune traditionally played to announce presidential arrivals at public events.

What most people don't know is that the composer of the tune was British: one James Sanderson, to be exact. Sanderson was an early 19th century violinist and the conductor of the Surrey Theatre in London. Sanderson wrote incidental music for a stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic poem The Lady of the Lake, which was published in 1810. The tune we know as “Hail to the Chief” must have been the hit from that London show, as it even made it way to America in short order.

Sanderson’s original tune "Wreaths for the Chieftain," with a new text and a new title, “Hail to the Chief,” was first sung in Boston in 1815, at a memorial service on Washington’s Birthday.

It was on today’s date in 1828, however, that the U.S. Marine Band first performed the song for a LIVING President. The occasion was the ground-breaking ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal attended by President John Quincy Adams. Subsequent First Ladies Julia Tyler and Sara Polk continued the tradition, asking the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to announce the arrival of their Presidential spouses.

By 1954, the Department of Defense established the tune as the official musical salute to their “Commander in Chief.”

Music Played in Today's Program

James Sanderson (17??-18??) Hail to the Chief Manchester Cornet Band Vox Box 5088

James Sanderson (17??-18??) Hail to the Chief Chestnut Brass Company Newport Classics 85548

Additional Information

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