The History of "Hail to the Chief"

Presidential podium in the Front Foyer, White House, District of Columbia, USA
Presidential podium in the Front Foyer, White House, District of Columbia, USA. Danita Delimont/Getty Images


Why is "Hail to the Chief" Played at the Arrival of A U.S. President?

If there is one song that is closely associated with the President of the United States, it is "Hail to the Chief." This tune is usually played as the President arrives at a formal gathering or during presidential events. Have you ever wondered why this is so? Here's some interesting background information:


The title of this song came from a poem, "The Lady of the Lake," written by Sir Walter Scott and published on May 8, 1810. The said poem consists of six cantos, namely: The Chase, The Island, The Gathering, The Prophecy, The Combat and The Guard Room. The words "Hail to the Chief" is found on Stanza XIX of the Second Canto.

Excerpt of the "Boat Song" by Sir Walter Scott (Second Canto, Stanza XIX)

Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!
Honored and blessed be the ever-green Pine!
Long may the tree, in his banner that glances,
Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line!

The said poem was so well-received that it was adapted into a play by James Sanderson. In the play, which was staged in London and then premiered in New York on May 8, 1812, Sanderson used the melody of an old Scottish tune for the "boat song." The song became so popular that many different versions were soon written.

Words of "Hail to the Chief" by Albert Gamse

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

The first time "Hail to the Chief" was played to honor a U.S. President was in 1815 during the commemoration of George Washington's birthday. On July 4, 1828, the song was performed by the United States Marine Band for President John Quincy Adams (served from 1825 to 1829) during the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

The song is believed to have been played at the White House under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson (served from 1829 to 1837) and President Martin Van Buren (served from 1837 to 1841). It is also believed that Julia Gardiner, first lady, and wife of President John Tyler (served from 1841-1845), requested the Marine Band to play "Hail to the Chief" during President Tyler's inauguration. Another first lady, Sarah Polk, wife of President James K. Polk (served from 1845 to 1849), asked the band to play the same song to announce her husband's arrival at formal gatherings.

However, President Chester Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, didn't like the song and instead asked bandleader/composer John Philip Sousa to write a different tune. The result is a song titled "Presidential Polonaise" which proved not as popular as "Hail to the Chief."

A short intro called "Ruffles & Flourishes" was added during William McKinley's presidency (served from 1897 to 1901). This short piece is played by a combination of drums (ruffles) and bugles (flourishes) and is played four times for the president before "Hail to the Chief" is performed.

In 1954, the Department of Defense made this song the official tune to announce the arrival of a U.S. President during official events and ceremonies.

Indeed, "Hail to the Chief" is deeply etched in history and has been played for many U.S. Presidents; from Abraham Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, to Barack Obama's inaugural oath in 2009.

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