Loved and loathed, flowers and colors named for them, parodied on Saturday Night Live skits and Halloween masks, First Ladies are woven into the fabric of American Pop Culture.
And, First Ladies have had songs written about them, being set to music in practically every genre, from jazz, country, rock, ballad, opera, show tune, reggae, guitar instrumental to barbershop quartet. In fact, there are an endless number of songs about First Ladies, some famous, like I Want to Be Jackie Onassis, about the former First Lady in the 70s, by Human Sexual Response, and others more obscure like It Must Have a Window Seat, about Abigail Fillmore from the 2009 musical The Accidental President about, yes, Millard Fillmore. The more irreverent, even caustic invariably reflect political opposition to the Presidents rather than commentary on the First Ladies. And not everything worth singing about First Ladies is necessarily worth singing. They can be found on youtube and other music websites.
Distilled from these choices are selected recordings of Songs about First Ladies, chosen to provide a range of sound and genre, and with lyrics relying on some historical content. Some are written by professional composers, some by students, and one is vocal. I provided two for Lady Bird Johnson because one is purely an instrumental jazz piece – but too amazing not to include.
Sample or a fully listen, then vote for the one which best capture the spirit of that First Lady:
Two of the four American Revolutionary War women given tribute in Revolutionary Women by Tom Cofield, Ryan Crabtree, Karen Catoe and Amy Farrow are First Lady number one and First Lady number two, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, and they fall into the second and third sequential places in the piece.
In Harriet Lane, an historically-accurate tribute to the young niece and First Lady of the only bachelor President, James Buchanan, composer Steve Ross reviews that dark Administration – and what he felt was the only bright-spot, striking a tone like Penny Lane by the Beatles.
Spencer Day’s slightly irreverent work, Mary Lincoln’s Last , is not, point by point, factual, but it is true in general – it was Mrs. Lincoln who insisted on going to the theater the night her husband was killed.
Perhaps one of the least-known yet funniest and historically dead-on imaginings of two consecutive First Ladies who couldn’t have been more utterly dissimilar, this comic soprano, Duet For One: The First Lady of the Land, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Mrs. Grant: In the history of my family, only Grant was bottle-fed, But I’m used to heavy drinkers, I’m Missouri born and bred. When they swear in our successors, I have got to be on hand! I do hope that I can stand it! And that General Grant can stand! Is it Hayes or is it Tilden, somehow no one seems to know? Thirty weeks for counting ballots, I would say is rather slow. I have packed up all the bourbon! Told them where to send the mail! While the People march in circles, wondering, Who the Hell to Hail! Not Rutherford B. Hayes!? A few dozen seconds are all that remain until, once again, I am little old plain, Julia Grant! What an anti-climax life will be for Ulysses and me!
Mrs. Hayes: A few dozen seconds are all that remain, and I will no longer be ordinary, plain Lucy Hayes! What a blaze of glory life will be! For Ruthie and me!
Mrs. Grant: Now they’ll cheer Lucy Hayes! That dear Lucy Hayes! They’ll worship her matchless cucumber skin! Her fingers like ancient bamboo! They’ll dote on her lips, so enchantingly thin, that it’s hard to believe there are two!
Mrs. Hayes: Damn old-day Julia Grant, passe Julia Grant! Her three little chins are now out of style, her charm has become sub-sublime. I hear they are planning to travel awhile, seeing friends who are still doing time!
Mrs. Grant: The gall of her husband, the treacherous soul! Taking the oath of the office he stole!
Mrs. Hayes: Thank God for our Bible – that glorious book! Everything else Grant and Julia took!
She always reminded people that when they got to the White House, that she and Warren would still be “just folks.” Florence Harding was the first First Lady to bring jazz music to the White House, played by a U.S. Navy Band combo. She still liked old-fashioned barbershop quartet harmonizing, most famously performed by the Columbus Glee Club, which wrote this song Flo From Ohio! (1921) in her honor, and serenaded crowds with it.
A ragtime-type song that touches a bit on the Depression and World War II era First Lady. The band jabber-jaws a bit on the video clip below, so go right to the music at 1:05. It is unclear what year the popular New England folk group, The Fabulous Farquahr Band first released The Eleanor Roosevelt Rag, but it was sometime between 1969 and 1971. It was performed here in 1980 by the Great Rubber Band in Lubbock, Texas.
Written in 1948, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Once in Love with Amy was popularized by actor Ray Bolger in the 1952 film Charley. That same year while campaigning for Eisenhower’s presidency, he turned the song he’d made a hit into a tribute to Mamie Eisenhower by adding an “M” sound before “Amy.” More than the similar-sounding name, however, the lyrics seem tailor-written for the bubbly and sentimental First Lady. Without regard for copyright, Bolger even had sheet music printed using the entire song with the title change to Once In Love With Mamie, and sang it for her at several 1956 re-election campaign events. In 1962, when Ike’s old foe, former President Harry Truman felt it was safe again to visit the White House, under Democrat John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy coaxed the piano-playing Truman to tinkle the keys, but when he looked for sheet music inside of the piano, all he found was Once in Love With Mamie. Jackie burst out laughing until JFK threw her a look and she bit her tongue. This 1966 version by The Bachelors has a more upbeat tempo than the original, but Mamie would still surely approve.
Jackie’s Strength by Tori Amos captures not only the most tragic time about the life of this famous First Lady but the impact Jacqueline Kennedy had on influencing the lives of millions of women at the time she was in the White House. This version provides the artist’s interesting audio commentary about what inspired the song and the connection to Mrs. Kennedy. The non-commentary version can also be found on youtube.
There are two selections here. The first is a sophisticated and breezy jazz piano trio called Lady Bird, by Ohio composer Tadd Dameron. A legendary bop era composer and arranger, he died two months after Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Inauguration.
The second, the ballad-like Lady Bird Waltz by Texan Patty Finney tells the story of Lady Bird Johnson with a regional affection, written about the former First Lady’s 2007 death.
Pat Nixon looms over the opera Nixon in China (1987) by John Adams as a sympathetic figure. The centerpiece of the Pat Nixon character’s performance is This is Prophetic! this particular recording with libretto by Alice Goodman. It opens with Mrs. Nixon reflecting on her own hard, early life and how she still treats everyday like Christmas. It follows her in her famous bright red coat, as she toured an acupuncture demonstration a farm, and a school – tracking with what the First Lady really did during her visit with the President during that historic occasion of the first U.S. presidential visit to Communist China. The liner notes add that, “The language of Pat’s Chinese guides is stilted and formal – they hint darkly of the repressive side of Chinese life that lies underneath the façade shown to foreign dignitaries. Pat sings an aria of her own hopes for the future, a peaceful future of modesty and good neighbourliness, a future based on the values of the American heartland.”
Reagan Reggae? The Reagan presidency of the 1980s did mark a popularization of the Jamaican reggae sound in the U.S. and in My Name is Nancy Reagan, this danceable beat piece by the American Blue Riddim Band reggae band, makes simple factual reference to her as the president’s wife, her fashion and her china, but without any of the acrimony journalists approached the topics. Very much a don’t worry, be happy piece.
She may not have won her party’s nomination for President in 2008, but the former President’s wife and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign inspired hope in many Americans of both genders. In We Need a Woman, the music and lyrics by Dulce Maria Gonzalez poignantly capture that feeling with palpable emotion.
You Paved a Way For Me, written and performed by Miko Jones, captures the sense of valuable and often necessary inspiration that Michelle Obama has engendered for so many, especially women whose feel empowered to grasp for their largest possibilities.