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Hail to the Chief

posted Jan 19, 2013, 9:38 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Jan 20, 2013, 8:34 PM ]
This official Presidential Anthem sounds forth as the President of the United States arrives at any formal gathering, or at a former President’s funeral.  The United States Marine Band and other military ensembles of the Department of Defense are generally the performers. 

But who would guess that its title and origin come from Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake?  The poem’s “Chief” was a Scottish folk hero who died trying to protect his clan from their invading enemy, King James V.  Published in 1810, its adventurous plot and characters were ripe with theatricality, and in the London production that transferred to America in 1812, an old Gaelic air was chosen for the boating scene that honors the highland chief.  This song became so popular that many people began writing their own versions, including Albert Gamse who changed the lyrics to “Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation…”

It was first played to honor a Chief Executive on February 22, 1815 to commemorate George Washington’s birthday.  First Ladies Julie Tyler and Sarah Polk really ritualized its use, requesting it specifically whenever their husbands appeared.  As historian William Seale states, “Polk was not an impressive figure, so some announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed.”   However, President Chester Arthur didn’t like it, and requested a new herald from John Philip Sousa.  His Presidential Polonaise never became popular though, and Hail to the Chief has been played at every inauguration from Abraham Lincoln’s in 1861 to Barack Obama’s tomorrow.

At the turn of the last century, four ruffles and flourishes were added to precede it for President William McKinley.  Four of these fanfares is the highest honor bestowed, with ruffles being played on drums and flourishes on bugles.  This is the version that became “official” in 1954.