Songs & Music About First Ladies: Vote for the Best One

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recordings of Songs about First Ladies, chosen to provide a range of sound and genre, and with lyrics relying on some historical content.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:

Martha Washington & Abigail Adams

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.

Harriet Lane

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.

Mary Lincoln

Spencer Day’s slightly irreverent work, Mary Lincoln’s Last Night Out, 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.

Julia Grant & Lucy Hayes

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 is from their Broadway musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976). British actress Patricia Routledge brought down the house by playing both First Ladies with the use of a wig that flipped into Julia’s head curls and then into Lucy’s humble “Madonna” hairstyle and singing about the letdown of being minutes away from the end of one’s time as First Lady – and the uplift of the beginning of another’s time in that position. Since this is a live performance audio, some lyric transcript may help:

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!

Florence Harding

Florence Harding 1923

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.

Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

Mamie Eisenhower

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.

Jacqueline Kennedy

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.

Lady Bird Johnson

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

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.”

Nancy Reagan

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. 

Hillary Clinton

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.

Michele Obama

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.

Categories: Abigail Adams, First Ladies, History, Politics

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11 replies »

  1. I had no idea that there were so many songs about the first ladies! I think I knew that Frankie Valli was supposed to have written “Shari” as “Jackie”. And then, in 1976 for the Bicentennial, there was a record with all sorts of waltzes and marches named for the FL’s. I think I ran across it at the library once or twice.

    I’ll have to run back through and listen to all of these. Thanks for another really unique and interesting post!

  2. WOW/! What an unusual collection of tunes. I liked the Bachlor’s “Once in Love w/Amy” or (Mamie). That vaudville era tune (even tho used in a hit 1950’s musical) really does fit Mrs. Eisenhower as I perceive her. Very cheerful and sentimental. I bet she just loved it so much when Ray Bolger would sing to her at the big events. I was really impressed with the cover to that song, U put up. It looks like an Annie Liebowitz picture for Vanity Fair. The pretty bouffant haired girls on the cover, dressed in 60’s attire could have been taken this month at a Southern School, like Southern Methodist or Washington & Lee (they were party schools of 60s for rich kids who could not get in to Ivy League). It seems the 60’s retro look shows up yearly in some form or another.

    There was a Rap best seller of late 1980’s called “Go Jackie” that was used in a documentary; it was sort of cool to see her moving along w/that beat. Another was a
    Bob Dylan song about her pill box hat, but my fav song about her was Carly Simon’s Kissed by the Sun. If U have not heard it Carl, I think you will like it, it’s beautiful, yet very profound. And that brings to mind the worst song about 1st Lady I heard, and it was by Lester Lanin Orchestra when they played the 1st Innaugral Ball for LBJ. It was called Ladybird, & this awful soprano, a Helen Traubel-Kate Smith wanna be was screeching it out, my family & I laughed so hard! The band’s leader said it was his tradition to do a special song for every 1st Lady, how lucky they were:).

    You are really doing lots of work here Carl, I know I speak for all your fans/friends when I thank you for all your efforts at creating this excellent blog. I thought I read somewhere you are working on bk. re Pat Nixon. I am already looking forward to it!

    • Hello S. Finishing my book on Ida McKinley – but did that long photo essay here on Pat Nixon. Wow – you really, really know your music, with a wide range of tastes like myself. I do like that 60s version of “Once In Love with…” and the cover – much more than any of the other choices the song was presented in. I also want to find a copy of that song and documentary “Go Jackie” – sounds curious. I like the way you think! Thanks for the comments, keep them coming when you wish!

  3. Hi Carl: thanks for your gracious feedback. It’s flashing back to me, that I heard the “Go Jackie” Rap on Hard Copy or Inside Edition way, way back in late 80’s or 90’s?
    It was not a full-fledged documentary, just a segment on one of these pulp/scandal shows that were so much fun & provacative when they first aired. Somewhere in
    the bowls of this Internet there must be a “path” to it. As I think about it, U will really
    get quite a kick out of it!

    ItLooking forward to your next book. I was just telling my own sister how let-down I feel, on Page 48 of Jackie’s Oral Hx. bk/project. I’ve been waiting for this oral hx to open up for eons; I hope my attention span gets better. I am amazed how long it took for Mary’s Mosaic to get published. I’ve had it on back-order/cancelled on Amazon for years! Do you know anything about this CIA/JFK/Mary Meyer tell all? I read the Burleiy (sp?) bk, but that was just a long essay, just a tease. I wonder if Janney was threatened or had to make comprimises to get this bk out?

    • I apologize for such a long delay in responding – sorry, working on deadline on the McKinley book final edit. You’ve given me three things I know nothing about to now research…..”Go Jackie” and page 48 of JBK’s oral history and Mary’s Mosaic. I read the Burleigh book and found Meyer to be an entirely unlikeable, unpleasant person. That’s not in any way to imply JFK was not entirely complicit, but some of these women involved with Presidents became almost manic in their determination to enact a fantasy of being with a President when really, a President is just a mortal human with as many (if not more) deficiencies as every human.

  4. The Duet for One is so fun! I so wish I could see a video recording of the song! I just finished reading Ishbel Ross’s The General’s Wife. I sure could see Julia in this song…

    • Rachel – Thank you for taking the time to write. We sure think alike. I had the same reaction to how well this song seemed to capture the humor and almost naive honesty of Julia Grant. Although the lyrics depict her as a bit of a caricature, I believe they are true to form….except for the part about “I just hope that General Grant can stand.” She was quite defensive about him and the claim that he drank alcohol to excess, although we have an eyewitness account from as late as their post-White House world tour. Anyway – thank you!


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