The Magazine

Sing a Song of Howard Dean

From the January 19, 2004 issue: The revival, if you can call it that, of campaign songs.

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By MATT LABASH
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NOT ALWAYS, BUT OFTEN, there comes a point in a Howard Deaniac's life when it's no longer enough to blog yourself silly, or to throw Dean-centric house parties, or to quit your job, move to Burlington campaign headquarters, and start dressing like a bike messenger. Sometimes, you've got to take off your "Hi-my-name-is" sticker, leave your Meetup early, and do something of greater consequence. Sometimes, you've gotta sing.

Proof of this is on display at songsfordean.com--an unofficial site where grassroots types like you and me can download those who have lifted their voices in support of Dean with original compositions. The campaign-song tradition is, of course, a storied, if not largely moribund one. We all have our favorites. Mine is a two-way tie. First, there's John Quincy Adams's "Little Know Ye Who's Coming." With the melody pinched from the Scottish "Highland Muster Roll," it's a sunny little ditty that reminds voters what's coming if they fail to elect Adams. The list is not encouraging: "Fire's comin', swords are comin', pistols, knives and guns are comin'." Additionally coming were slavery, knavery, hatin', and Satan, "if John Quincy not be comin'." For unintentional hilarity, however, it's hard to beat William Howard Taft's entreaty to "Get on a Raft with Taft"--a chancy move, considering he weighed as much as a small manatee.

In recent decades, however, candidates have settled for more generic fare, often with deleterious consequences. If Bill Clinton hadn't lifted "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," we might have made it through the rest of our lives without a Fleetwood Mac reunion. And while George W. Bush originally spun Tom Petty's "Don't Back Down" at campaign events (Petty complained, Bush backed down), he ended up settling on a song ("We the People") performed by the most dreaded name in the English language: Billy Ray Cyrus.

The 2004 cycle has seen a revival of the form. Erstwhile candidate Bob Graham went so far as to release the "Charisma Tour" CD--with cuts like a "Friend in Bob Graham," and the Spanish-language version, "Arriba Bob." And Dennis Kucinich, who's consorted with rappers and who has a "hip-hop coordinator," has an entire website called "Musicians 4 Kucinich," where he is the subject of flattering songs and testimonials from the likes of the perfectly named "Chester and the Over Anxious Sparrows."

But for sheer volume of output, it is hard to match the fecundity of the Deaniac singer-songwriters. In fact, in the annals of songs written about former Vermont governors, it is a golden era of sorts--the equivalent of working in the Brill Building of the early sixties, or Topanga Canyon in the early seventies. As for the quality? "Varying" would most politely describe it.

While I'm hardly the first to state that the Dean campaign is remarkably free of people of color, I am, after spending a day on songsfordean.com, the person who has suffered through the most painful reminders of it in rapid succession. From coffeehouse bluesmen who over-enunciate every whitebread word, to hot blasts of undiluted folk so earnest that it could make the Weavers cry uncle, the songs are by and for white people. Sort of.

There are two versions of the "Howard Dean Rap." One interpretation is done by a Justin O. and Noah D. "D," or maybe it's "O," asserts that "Dean's balanced budgets and he's cut taxes / Don't you look at me, I'm just sayin' what the facts is" (which the cognoscenti will recognize as a rhyme sampled from those 1970s proto-rappers, the Steve Miller Band). From there, it gets much, much worse. They use dated rap terminology like "chill" and "wack." One line goes, "Stop and stare, say hey, lookie there! / It's a doctor! Where? And he knows health care!" "Lookie there?" If they were real rappers, they'd get their asses kicked even in East Hampton, where Dean hails from. By the time they recite Bush's falling "P to the O to the double L" numbers, you just want to grab the first B-to-the-L-to-the-ACK person you can find, and tuck a reparations check into their breast pocket while apologizing profusely.

A recurring theme of the Dean corpus is his doctorhood. Dean's five terms as governor, among supporters, pale next to his M.D. credential. Two different songs are titled, "The Doctor Is In," and one is less imaginatively titled "Doctor Howard Dean" (featuring the considerably more imaginative lyric, "This land is showing symptoms of having a disease / More serious than acne, more serious than fleas").