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Presidents Day: 'Hail to the Chief' wasn't always so presidential

"Hail to the Chief" was first associated with a president on Feb. 22, 1815, when it was played (under the title "Wreaths for the Chieftain") partly to honor George Washington (depicted on the left on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota), who died in 1799.Scott Olson/Getty Images

February 18, 2022

Is there a more authoritatively "American"-sounding composition than "Hail to the Chief"? What's most surprising, however, is that the origin of the music isn't American at all, and its use might have had a lot to do with making up for shortcomings.

Played to announce the arrival of the president at official state functions, "Hail to the Chief," is typically preceded with a fanfare of four "ruffles and flourishes" and then the familiar march.

Hail to the Chief
Hail to the Chief chorus sheet music and lyrics
Wikimedia commons

To get the whole history, we have to start at the beginning, which in this case is Walter Scott's poem "The Lady of the Lake." The poem is a narrative of how a wayward clan from the Scottish Highlands loses its territory to an invasion.

The poem was published May 8, 1810, and with it came fame and money, selling 25,000 copies in less than a year. The thrilling plot and in-depth characters lent to an easy stage adaptation; 1811 saw at least three productions in London alone, plus one in Edinburgh, Scotland, produced by Edmund John Eyre.

A year later, the sensation swept across the Atlantic, and the Scottish version had its U.S. debut in Philadelphia's New Theater on New Year's Day, 1812. Among the songs selected to accompany the play was James Sanderson's "Hail to the Chief," written for one of the London productions, taking this stanza to heart:

Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!
Honored and blessed be the ever-green Pine!

Sanderson set "Hail to the Chief" to the words of Stanza XIX of the Second Canto of Scott's "Lady of the Lake." The poem's "Chief" was the Scottish folk hero Roderick Dhu, who strove to protect the Douglas clan from their enemy, King James V, but died at the monarch's hand.

Because of the play's popularity, sheet music was made available. The first U.S. sheet music for "Hail to the Chief" was published in Philadelphia under the title "March and Chorus, 'Hail to the Chief,' in the Dramatic Romance of The Lady of the Lake."

Given its sheer availability and rousing pomp, it was only a matter of time before U.S. presidents became the "chief" in the title. "Hail to the Chief" was first associated with a chief executive on Feb. 22, 1815, when it was played (under the title "Wreaths for the Chieftain") to honor George Washington, who died in 1799, and the end of the War of 1812.

It was used sporadically to honor presidents throughout the next few decades. Andrew Jackson was the first living president to hear it in his honor in 1829. It made an appearance at Martin Van Buren's inauguration in 1837. But then in 1841, first lady Julia Tyler, wife of John Tyler, requested its use to announce the president's arrival.

Her request formalized its use, but that doesn't mean it was widely accepted. It was, however, included in some musical instruction books, including the one that future first lady Sarah Childress Polk studied. Of course, it was included in her husband's inauguration but would also prove helpful for one of his administration's shortcomings — his meekness.

Historian William Seale explained: “Polk was not an impressive figure, so some announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed. At large affairs, the band … rolled the drums as they played the march … and a way was cleared for the president.”

President Chester Arthur was not a fan and requested that none other than John Philip Sousa compose a new piece. Sousa, who for a great part of his career directed the U.S. Marine Band, came back with the forgettable "Presidential Polonaise."

President Harry Truman — an amateur musicologist and outstanding pianist — spent time tracing the origins of the piece and in 1954 the Department of Defense established it as the official musical tribute to the president.

The Lyrics

Lyrics that were written by Albert Gamse are set to James Sanderson's music, but they are rarely sung.

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!