Presidential Playlist: A Song for Every Commander-in-Chief

Music Lists

Today, as the nation honors our fearless leaders (or, you know, hits the mall for some ridiculous deals), we at Paste pay tribute to the country’s highest office with a track for every president (before you ask: Grover Cleveland only gets one).

We chose songs that were written specifically about certain presidents when possible, but while there’s a bevy of material about JFK, Lincoln and Nixon, finding tracks about Millard Fillmore proved to be a little more difficult. For cases like those, we tried to get a little more creative, choosing songs that represent a theme or factoid from that president’s life.

Without further ado, we give you our Presidential Playlist. Be sure to let us know in the comments section if there’s an awesome Rutherford B. Hayes jam we missed.

George Washington
“No More Kings” by Pavement

Stephen Malkmus and company teach us all about taxation without representation by covering this Schoolhouse Rock classic. But if historical accuracy’s not your thing and you prefer to hear about how our first president “ate opponent’s brains and invented cocaine,” we recommend Brad Neely’s hilarious Washington rap.

John Adams
“Je T’aime Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin

Adams’ presidency was marked by foreign policy disputes with France, who was at war with Britain at the time. So what better track for Adams then this ode to Anglo-Franco lovin’ by one of France’s finest and his English girlfriend?

Thomas Jefferson
“Goin’ To Louisiana” by John Lee Hooker

Jefferson nearly doubled the size of our country in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, purchasing 828,000 square miles for just $15 million. No word on whether he also bought a “mojo hand.”

James Madison
“The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton

This 1959 country hit recounts the story of the Battle of New Orleans, a key victory for the U.S. in the War of 1812 during Madison’s presidency.

James Monroe
“Keep Your Hands To Yourself” by Georgia Satellites

The Monroe Doctrine, laid out during the president’s seventh State of the Union, warned that further European colonization of North and South America would be seen as an act of aggression requiring American intervention.

John Quincy Adams
“I Predict A Riot” by Kaiser Chiefs

John Quincy Adams was strongly opposed to slavery, and he correctly predicted that the only way it would be abolished would be if a civil war were to break out.

Andrew Jackson
“The Jackass Song” by Harry Belafonte

Democrats today have Jackson to thank for the party’s mascot. Opponents referred to him as a “jackass,” but rather than get offended, Jackson owned it, using the animal as a symbol on campaign materials.

Martin Van Buren
“Indian Reservation” by Paul Revere & The Raiders

“Indian Reservation” is inspired by the Trail of Tears—the forced relocation of many Native American tribes to small reservations in the West—which Van Buren oversaw.

William Henry Harrison
“The President’s Dead” by Okkervil River

Harrison was only in office for a month before he succumbed to pneumonia, becoming the first president to die in office. While it’s not about a specific president, Will Sheff and co.’s song about the shock a nation experiences whenever it loses a commander-in-chief seems pretty fitting.

John Tyler
“A State of Texas” by Old 97’s

Tyler’s widely regarded as one of the more obscure presidents, but his most significant achievement was the annexation of Texas. Yee-haw!

James K. Polk
“James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants

“We were sitting around talking about obscure presidents in history, and whether they were actually as unimportant during their own time,” John Linnell said about this song in 1992. “And the name James K. Polk came up, and we looked him up and found that he was actually a pretty important guy. He started a trumped-up war with Mexico. He supported Manifest Destiny. Basically, he was a real bastard.”

Zachary Taylor
“Sour Cherry” by The Kills

Taylor died just 16 months into his term from an unknown digestive issue, which was believed to be the result of Taylor—no joke—eating a bunch of cherries and drinking excessive amounts of milk in an attempt to cool off on a hot day. Yum.

Millard Fillmore
“Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen

Fillmore married his former teacher, Abigail Preston, after the pair met at the New Hope Academy. Before you cry “scandal!” though, she was only two years older than him. But that’s still enough for us to bust out some Van Halen.

Franklin Pierce
“Song for the Dumped” by Ben Folds Five

Pierce was such an unpopular president that his own party abandoned him, and he lost the Democratic nomination in 1856—the only elected incumbent president to lose his party’s nomination. Ouch. We think he’d probably relate to this Ben Folds Five track.

James Buchanan
“Lonely Boy” by The Black Keys

Buchanan remains the only president to be a lifelong bachelor. His niece served as First Lady during his term, but we can’t help but think the White House was a little lonely while he was in office.

Abraham Lincoln
“Abraham, Martin and John” by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s smooth vocals add an extra poignancy to this Dion cover, which pays tribute to Lincoln, Martin Luther King and JFK. “He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young,” Gaye laments, “I just looked around and he was gone.” Also recommended: “”Abe Lincoln by Bishop Allen.

Andrew Johnson
“Impeach the President” by The Honey Drippers

It’s probably safe to assume that this funky 1972 track is about Nixon, but it’s fitting here too; Johnson was the first president to be impeached. He was ultimately acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Ulysses S. Grant
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band

We’d be interested to know how the head of the Union Army would feel about this track about the final days of the Civil War told from the Southern perspective.

Rutherford B. Hayes
“Close Call” by Rilo Kiley

Hayes won his election by the slimmest of margins: just one measly electoral vote. Phew! Close call indeed.

James Garfield
“Mr. Garfield” by Johnny Cash

Cash brings the pathos as only he can, recounting James Garfield’s assassination with this Ramblin’ Jack Elliott cover.

Chester A. Arthur
“In The Navy” by the Village People

Naval reform became one of the major debates in Arthur’s presidency, with Congress approving funds to modernize the navy and build new vessels.

Today, as the nation honors our fearless leaders (or, you know, hits the mall for some ridiculous deals), we at Paste pay tribute to the country’s highest office with a track for every president (before you ask: Grover Cleveland only gets one).

Grover Cleveland
“The Second Time Around” by Shalamar

After Cleveland failed to secure re-election in 1888, he vowed to return to the White House in four years—and he made good on his promise, becoming the first and only president to serve non-consecutive terms.

Benjamin Harrison
“Goin’ Back to Indiana” by the Jackson 5

Benjamin Harrison is the only president to date to hail from Indiana. After being defeated by Grover Cleveland in 1892, he did in fact “go back to Indiana,” where he retired and became a private citizen.

William McKinley
“White House Blues” by Charlie Poole

Recorded in 1926, this banjo-driven track tells the story of the McKinley assassination: “McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled/Doc said ‘McKinley, I can’t find the cause’/’You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.’”

Theodore Roosevelt
“Teddy Bear” by Elvis Presley

Teddy bears get their name from this former president, who refused to shoot a black bear while on a hunt and became the subject of a famous political cartoon. Inspired by the cartoon, toymaker Morris Mitchtom made a stuffed bear cub and dubbed it “Teddy’s bear,” and the rest is history.

William Howard Taft
“Fat Man in the Bathtub” by Little Feat

Because Taft was, well, a large gentleman who got stuck in the White House bathtub. After the incident, he had a special tub installed that was seven feet long and over three feet wide.

Woodrow Wilson
“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by The Pogues

The Pogues’ phenomenal cover of this World War I ballad by Eric Bogle illustrates the horrors of war by recounting the Battle of Gallipoli. It’s full of grim imagery as the protagonist loses his legs in the war and cries, “I never knew there were worse things than dying.”

Warren G. Harding
“Warren Harding” by Al Stewart

In which Stewart imagines Harding as a lonely president who “just wants someone to talk to.”

Calvin Coolidge
“Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman

“President Coolidge come down in a railroad train,” Newman sings. “With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand. The president say, ‘Little fat man, ain’t it a shame what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?’”

Herbert Hoover
“We’d Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover” by the cast of Annie

You know your approval rating is in trouble when even 11-year-old Depression-era orphans are taking you to task in song.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” by Bob Dylan

Dylan performed this Woody Guthrie song—written to console FDR’s loved ones after his death—at a Guthrie tribute concert in 1968, his first performance after his motorcycle accident. There’s also this lovely tribute to his first lady by Vigilantes of Love: Eleanor

Harry S. Truman
“Harry Truman” by Chicago

Another Nixon-era track that yearns for simpler times. “America’s wondering how we got here,” singer Robert Lamm laments, “Harry all we get is lies.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Eisenhower Blues” by JB Lenoir

This blues song gained a wider audience in 1986 when Elvis Costello covered it on King of America.

John F. Kennedy
“The Day John Kennedy Died” by Lou Reed

We could easily make an entire list of songs that reference JFK, and narrowing it down to one is tough, but you can’t go wrong with Lou Reed.

Lyndon B. Johnson
“Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation” by Tom Paxton

“Lyndon Johnson told the nation, ‘Have no fear of escalation, I am trying everyone to please,’” Paxton sings on this 1965 Vietnam War protest song. “Although it isn’t really war, we’re sending 70,000 more to help save Vietnam from Vietnamese.”

Richard Nixon
“You Haven’t Done Nothin’” by Stevie Wonder

This 1974 kiss-off to Richard Nixon is Stevie Wonder at his angriest. “It’s not too cool to be ridiculed, but you brought this upon yourself,” he warns before tearing the disgraced president a new one with a little help from the Jackson 5.

Gerald Ford
“Funky President” by James Brown

“Funky” isn’t really the first adjective that comes to mind when we think of Gerald Ford, but James Brown penned this track about Ford shortly after he took office.

Jimmy Carter
“Whip It” by Devo

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the lyrics, but this Devo classic was written with Jimmy Carter in mind. “We had just done our second world tour when we started writing our third album,” Mark Mothersbaugh told Songfacts. “The one thing that we were impressed with that we noticed everywhere around the world was that everybody was totally freaked out by American politics and American foreign policy. At the time, Jimmy Carter was in charge. I thought of ‘Whip It’ as kind of a Dale Carnegie, ‘You Can Do It’ song for Jimmy Carter.”

Ronald Reagan
“Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” by The Ramones

The Ramones wrote this song to protest Reagan’s controversial 1985 visit to a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. Despite outrage from many Americans, Reagan laid a wreath at the cemetery, where SS officers are buried. “You’re a politician,” Joey Ramone sneers. “Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”

George H. W. Bush
“Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young

Like “Born in the USA,” this song commonly gets misinterpreted as a flag-waving anthem, but it’s actually a critique of the Bush administration and its foreign policy. Young even directly references Bush’s “thousand points of light” comment from his inaugural address.

Bill Clinton
“Devil With A Blue Dress On” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels

We all know why.

George W. Bush
“When The President Talks to God” by Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst sounds postively Dylan-esque on this 2005 protest song he penned about George W. Bush, posing questions like, “Does God suggest an oil hike when the president talks to God?” and “When the president talks to God, does he fake that drawl or merely nod?”

Barack Obama
“Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green

There are quite a few musical options for our current president. We could have gone with the star-studded Yes We Can video inspired by one of his speeches or Sam Cooke’s “”A Change is Gonna Come which Obama himself referenced in his victory speech after being elected in 2008. But after he showed off his pipes with a few bars of Al Green earlier this year, “Let’s Stay Together” seems like the obvious choice.

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