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
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").
No fewer than 10 songs mention that Dean's a doctor, and rarely do they do so in the poetic, rock'n'roll sense (such as the Thompson Twins' early '80s plaint, "Doctor, Doctor, can't you see I'm burnin', burnin'"). Some get painted into unfortunate lyrical corners. Denny Zartman, an AM radio-board operator from Smyrna, Ga., sings in "We Want Howard Dean": "We're gonna need a doctor to fix us up quick / We need to remove our Bush and our Dick." But many of the doc references come off like the boasts of beaming old women in the bingo parlors of their assisted-living complexes--as in, "My son's a doctor."
If Dean songwriters don't come in all colors, they do come in all stripes. Dan Tyler, author of one of the "The Doctor Is In"s, exhibits sturdy songcraft and is an accomplished writer, having penned hits for the likes of LeAnn Rimes and the Oak Ridge Boys. As a performer, he could pass for Guy Clark if you had a few beers in you--perhaps the only legal way to pleasantly make it through an afternoon at songsfordean.com.
Then there's "Pi," who does not, as her name suggests, represent the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Rather, she says via email (in true Deaniac fashion, I interviewed a good many songwriters via email), she is a Pisces. Her real name is Lisa Marie, after Elvis's daughter, so she understandably sticks to the nickname. A self-described "child of liberal hippies" and "international it-girl," Pi would like to be in charge of Dean's inauguration music, where she would mix it up: some old-school rock, some Missy Misdemeanor Elliott, some Groove Armada "so people could dance," and a variety platter from trip-hop to jungle. Convinced that even she, a "lowly, flaky musician," would make a better president than Bush, she has turned out "Dean 4 Prez." To a swing-songy Nelly Furtado-ish beat, she sings that Dean represents "the Party People's Party," and stays with his résumé motif ("here's a list of his qualifications" goes one line), baldly asserting that "Dean thinks that you should sleep with who the hell you want." Party people, indeed.
While most of the singing Deaniacs say they have never lent such support to another political candidate, some are downright sheepish that a reporter spied their work. When I contacted the author of "Sleepless Summer," 52-year-old media designer Marc Montefusco, he said, "You discovered my guilty secret, and I feel--well, guilty." His song lightly rips off Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band," because "I didn't want to write some fulsome, personal, yucky folk tribute." Like scores of first-timers who have been sucked into Dean's grassroots-charisma nexus, he seems almost surprised that he's gone so far as to post a Dean song: "I haven't told anyone--not my partner, not my friends. . . . It's almost completely unlike me."
Creative people, by nature, create. And so it is that many of the singing Deaniacs have a body of work unrelated to Dean. Carlton Schreiner, for instance, who wrote the Dean-themed "Let's Take Back America," also wrote "Sick Camel," a harrowing story-song about Gaza Strip strife, told from the camel's perspective. Likewise, Bryan Hitchcock, who wrote the Dean-themed "Song For America," is an administrative assistant at a landscaping company who also runs a role-playing website with buddies he's been playing Dungeons and Dragons with since high school. ("Yes," he writes, "I am a geek. LOL.") Not only did he write "Annihilation Rock," about the first Gulf War, but he also dabbles in gothic poetry, with selections like "Scarlet Witch," "Ragnorok," and "two-hundred and twelve degrees fahrenheit," the last of which contains this little snippet of light verse: "Dip my oozing body in your hot liquid soul / so that I may emerge / new and wet / and glistening / with the essence of our union / So that I may wrap you / in my writhing spirit / and engulf you / in my own boiling flesh."
Hitchcock, however, will have his work cut out for him if he aims to be the poet laureate of a Dean administration. That honor will most likely go to David Teller, a New York City subway busker. Like Dean, he seems kind of angry. Several times a week, he says, "I take my guitar into the subway and scream at the world to relieve the stresses" involved in being a full-time caregiver to his disabled wife. In addition to issuing an entire CD of Dean songs, he also writes Dean-inspired limericks. He's got 23 of them in the can. And while it's easy to clown on Deaniacs, as I hope I have demonstrated, scoffers should be mindful of Teller's Dean Limerick #22:
Last month they thought we were funny.
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.