I am, when it comes down to it, a Medievalist – that is to say, by one definition, I study the West before the development of the printing press. This dividing line is of great significance to the actual study of a historian, simply because the explosion of printed materials from the 16th century onwards changes one’s methodology considerably. More material survives from more writers from a wider social range on a greater variety of subjects. This only increases as we reach the present day. The result is that me and my peers are stuck reading things like propagandistic poetry or equally untrustworthy stylised invective to sketch out the basic details of what on earth was going on in the court of Justinian, while contemporary historians curious about the Wilson government’s position on land nationalisation need only to pop down to the National Archives at Kew where they can find box upon box of material. This is, as you can imagine, sometimes frustrating for me, although it does make my craft both less time-consuming and generally rather more enjoyable.
Still, just because you’re able to go to the archive mean you have to, and this is where the song poem comes in. From perhaps 1950 to 1980, advertisements would appear at the back of American magazines asking for ‘song poems’ – in other words, lyrics. It was claimed that there was a desperate need for words for songs, and so for only (say) $200 you could have a demo of your lyrics set to music, which could then be sent on to recording studios. It was, of course, a barely legal scam which relied on the gullibility of punters – one can get a taste of the contempt of the people running these schemes for their customers by the fact that they judged the simple term ‘lyrics’ too complicated for the audience they were aiming at. The demos were made, but were mass-produced by out-of-work but nevertheless very skillful musicians at a rate of perhaps 20 a day. Most of these song poems haven’t survived, and that’s usually no great loss – a lot of them were dross. Still, many were quirky; some were disturbing, or poignant, or funny; a handful, like Rodd Keith’s I Died Today, compare favourably with much of the pop produced at the same time. Song poems now have a cult following of collectors and connoisseurs, and YouTube means that more and more are available to the general public.
Song poems with political themes were always a small fraction of the overall output, but a perhaps disproportionate number have survived. They reflect the views of… I struggle to say normal Americans, because a lot of these people were cranks, but let’s say humble American citizens probably not actively involved in the political process. And so, we begin with God in his infinite wisdom put Richard Nixon on this earth.
The lyrics are staggeringly over-the-top without telling us why exactly the author approved so enthusiastically of the 37th President – ‘God in his infinite wisdom put Richard Nixon on this earth/To share with us his heritage, one of priceless worth’. Like all song poems, this one is difficult to date, but we know that the man who set it to music, Rodd Keith, was active in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Keith, who was involved with the LA counter-cultural scene and was a heavy user of hallucogenic drugs, can’t have been RN’s biggest fan, which is perhaps what gives God in his infinite wisdom both its slightly tongue-in-cheek tone and hints of the experimental and discordant beneath the over-the-top patriotic melody. Still, we can guess at the original intent of the lyricist. My guess is that this dates from between 1967 and 1969, as Nixon reemerged as a serious political figure and rebuilt his political platform out of opposition to the radical and apparently destructive events of those turbulent years, from Black Power to exactly the kind of hippiness that Rodd Keith himself exemplified.
Fast forward a few years, though, you reach a song poem composed around the time of Nixon’s impeachment.
The style has changed, to a pastiche of Seventies folk, but more than that it reflects the wounded pride of a Nixon supporter in the aftermath of Watergate (who knows? it might be the same writer). There is, in one of the verses, a defence of Nixon’s ending of the Vietnam War, but the lyrics’ narrative, such as it is, rests on the chorus: ‘God knows the complete story and never takes a nap/You can be sure that on his tape there is no gap.’ This is, of course, a reference to the infamous 18-and-a-half gap on one of the White House tapes. At first this seems a strong defence of Nixon, but it is more than a little equivocal – God will judge Nixon, and while it’s implied that that judgement will be favourable the trickiness of Tricky Dick has eroded the confidence even of this foul-weather friend.
Finally, two song poems which, since they concern the frequently derided Jimmy Carter, have reached something approaching cult status. They are also, in many ways, the most interesting.
The disco groove of Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes’ leaves it open to legitimate mockery, but behind it there’s some hint of the high hopes which Carter’s run for president generated. The government will be run ‘without stain or corruption’, and the ex-peanut famer is made to promise to ‘stand like Old Glory, faithful to the Republic’. The comparison to Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanours is implicit. Yet the lyrics also contain hopes for security, and for competence. Viva President Carter is also full of similar desires: ‘will our tax dollars at long last be well-spent? Let us not get any further behind!’ These are hopes of people who were worried about corruption in government, but also waste and inefficiency, and who worry for their country in the midst of stagflation and the Cold War. Of course, Carter’s ineffective management of the economy makes ‘can the government be competent? Jimmy Carter says yes!’ ironic to us, and its easy to see how the lyricists and many of their contemporaries might have been persuaded by Ronald Reagan’s contention that ‘government is the problem’.
Of course, there are other political song poems out there, many of them not yet online. I hope someday that an enterprising academic in desire of something quirky to read at a seminar, and fancying something rather more exciting than wading through four years’ worth of the Washington Post and the New York Times, might try writing about song poems. Voice of the cranks: the song poem and 1960s political culture sounds like a nice, snappy title to me.