Music on the Campaign Trail

Contrary to habitual dismissals of the Ames Straw Poll as “non-predictive” and generally silly, I find the exercise, even as experienced through the distorted lenses of television and YouTube, bizarrely refreshing. Given the county fair atmosphere of the event, with candidates tossing out stacks of bills like candy at a parade and buying votes with mounds of meat and deep-fried food, bringing in fun-fair rides for the kids, and erecting air-conditioned big tops, the Straw Poll is the perfect venue for the Republican contenders to let down their hair. (Straw Poll winner Michelle Bachmann’s is the longest among them, though she foolishly straitjackets it in enough hairspray to kill every mosquito in Iowa.) The candidates get to roll up their sleeves and act like Carnival barkers, for once letting the “live” pretend to take precedence over the televised. They’re encouraged to play to their strengths: they even get to sing if they dare.

I’ve long argued for the political efficacy of song. As I’ve pointed out before in this space, many are the politicians who’ve turned to music-making not only for solace and introspection when facing important decisions, but who’ve also used it as a tool for presenting the public side of their rule. So it has been from King David to Nero to Vladimir Putin, seen, and unfortunately also heard, here  at the height of his political and artistic powers playing and singing Blueberry Hill. This evergreen instantly drops its needles beneath the toxic plume of his musical off-gassing.

The best of the musical politicians of the last half century was the late RNC chairman Lee Atwater, who, it unfortunately has to be admitted, was an excellent amateur R & B guitarist. Atwater’s command of black musical idioms made his ruthless race-baiting, whose most notorious example was the 1988 Willie Horton attack ad against Michael Dukakis, all the more sinister. Atwater died in 1991 before he could go toe-to-toe on the political bandstand with Bill Clinton, who consequently dismissed George Bush I in 1992. Already in the Democratic primaries earlier that year, Clinton showed how closely he’d studied Atwater’s lead sheet, returning to Arkansas to oversee the execution of the mentally unfit black murderer, Ricky Ray Rector, and later appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show with his saxophone and sunglasses for a pseudo-bluesy rendition of Heartbreak Hotel  The true nature of Clinton’s politics was revealed in his cynical pandering in the death chamber and the late night t.v. studio.

But, as Putin’s devastating croonings make clear, it is the human voice lofted in song that seems to offer the clearest window onto the soul of the singer. Even in the present age, the voices of popstars are able to free themselves from the technological shackles of their overproduced and effects-besieged hits and still project something that might even be called authenticity.  In the voice’s flight of freedom from overweening technology is heard the reason why singers will always earn far more money than instrumentalists.

Yet the voice can also deceive, Don Giovanni-style. In its mix of sincerity and deceit, song would seem the perfect tool for electioneering, all the more so since it is so rarely deployed.

Last time around through the election season of 2008 on the Democratic side singing proved decisive. Hillary Clinton’s disastrous rendition of Happy Birthday on the primary trail proved to be the Waterloo of her presidential campaign, whereas Obama’s rarely deployed but highly persuasive singing voice courted Hispanic voters—in Spanish—in Los Angeles.It was no coincidence that better musician got the nomination.

Among the Republicans during that same cycle it was Mike Huckabee who tried to capture some of the old Atwater magic, pumping away at his bass on his campaign song Sweet Home Alabama at countless appearances. Butsurveying these now courtesy of YouTube, one is struck by how forlorn Huckabee looks especially when compared to the tiger-like intensity of Atwater. In contrast to the brazen and musically blunt Clinton, the otherwise charismatic Huckabee seems out-of-place on stage, an interloper who embarrasses rather than enlivens by his presence. As Cicero knew, the prime instrument of the politician is his voice, though the great orator is said also to have had his Senate speeches accompanied by piping boys. It is not only Huckabee’s besuited unease on stage that reveals his weakness; more discomfiting is that fact that his mouth is closed, leaving his dark eyes to chew the scenery. The big question howling from the loudspeakers is: Why is Huckabee not singing his own campaign song? Clinton solved the problem by putting a tenor saxophone between his lips and blowing hot air. The result proved to be a convincing surrogate for his grating speaking voice.

Though not a candidate this time around, Huckabee was in Iowa last weekend whoring around at the Ames Straw Poll for a couple of candidates, the most interesting musically being Pizza Godfather, Herman Cain. The black conservative is also a Baptists minister and his voice is his most powerful instrument. Cain’s 1996 album Sunday Morning will cost you forty bucks on Amazon, so coveted is this collection of gospel songs done in kitschily electronified arrangements. As far as the instrumental tracks, never has gospel sounded more saccharine or unfunky. (These musical offerings can be sampled here )

While one is under no illusion whatever that Cain’s voice rather than his money immortalized him on CD, he can indeed sing. His voice is rich, mostly on key, and demonstrates a flair for performance, a command of the power of the sung word.

Under his tent in Ames, Cain mistakenly brought on the doleful bassist Huckabee and a young cowboy-hatted guitarist to strike the mournful chords of the gospel hymn “Hold On”
( Cain let’s his resonant voice with its wide vibrato plumb the depths of its register, perhaps like the economy floundering downward. “Hold on” he urges, “Just a little bit Longer / and everything is gonna be alright.” The performance’s surprisingly effective evocation of  suffering and the hope for change is a musical raspberry in the face of Obama’s  rhetoric from 2008. Cain indulges in churchy, indeed almost campy, cantillations of lament at the present state of things, and wallows in his big musical and physical gestures, smiling his way through the implications that he is the savior.  It’s dangerous to anoint one’s self as god’s chosen republican, but Cain does it with a splash of musical humor masked as reverence. And he shows himself to be a real performer, getting the most out of his voice and filling the tent with his powerful stage presence. Even the baleful Huckabee can’t deflate the effect of the most expressive political performance of the young republican season, already threatened by the onset of collective rigamortis.

Glittering possibilities flash through the imagination: Cain sings Mahalia Jackson-like at his own inauguration; Cain sings his State of the Union, his fabulous musical bluster rewarded by the chamber’s rapturous applause, meaningful for the first time in decades; a rejuvenated Putin and Cain sing their way to total nuclear disarmament.

When the straws were counted, however, Cain didn’t even get two thousand votes, garnering only eight percent, and placing a percentage-point below the dismal Rick Santorum. In politics, as in the musical arena itself, the best voice doesn’t always get the curtain call.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. David Yearsley’s latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at