September 20, 2016
Today on the Inside Trax, I chat with Stuart Schimler, founder of American Pioneer Music. The former UC Berkeley history major makes his living as a software exec by day, but he also has a secret (or not so secret) passion—he loves campaign songs! Schimler’s company has produced two campaign song albums: the first, Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election, revives the campaign songs of yore. The second, a concept album titled The Candidates From New York, tackles 2016 by pairing traditional tunes with 21st-century subject matter. Unlike his campaign-song loving counterparts on sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud, Schimler is not interested in beating down one candidate to elevate the other. The albums bipartisan stance is likely to delight music lovers of all political stripes. The album includes a title track (set to the tune “The Sidewalks of New York”) and then five songs for Hillary Clinton and five for Donald Trump. Schimler’s recent album is less about the message and more about reviving the creativity and ingenuity of the 19th-century campaign song.
Mr. Schimler was interviewed on August 15, 2016.
Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: Could you tell me a bit about your background? Were you a music student or a history student? What do you do now? Is creating albums of campaign songs your full-time gig?
Stuart Schimler: I was a history major and I was always passionate about U.S. history. I studied mostly the Antebellum period. I was really interested of course in political, cultural, and economic history in the early 1800s so you see where [campaign] songs fall into that context. When I was growing up, baseball history was my first passion. [Schimler has also published on the topic of baseball.] I guess it was when I was thirteen and cut from the team that I had to figure out how I could actually be attached to the game. As I grew older, my interests became a bit more serious, but I am not a career historian. But, of course, this is something that I am passionate about, and it means a lot to me, so I definitely want to be as connected to it as possible. You find that there are actually quite a few people who have these interests and musical tastes and actually appreciate the music, too.
DGM: Can you tell us a bit about your most recent campaign song album, The Candidates from New York?
SS: Sure. So the reason why I created this CD, The Candidates from New York, is more out of a historical appreciation for 19th-century political campaign songs, rather than trying to contribute and vote for a particular candidate. So if you go through the tracks, I took a swipe at both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, because I’m not necessarily trying to influence anyone’s vote; rather, I’m attempting to advertise the concept of campaign songs and get people to understand exactly what purpose and what part they had in American history.
DGM: Indeed, they are important. It really is a wonderful CD in so many regards. Could you maybe tell us a bit about how you got hooked on campaign music of all things?
SS: Yeah, I think that’s a great question, and it really has deep roots in my childhood. Sometime in high school, around sixteen or so years ago, I discovered Napster. [Napster was an early P2P music-sharing platform.] And I was actually just perusing through songs, searching for different types of music I hadn’t heard before. And I somehow stumbled upon music from the Civil War and 19th-century American history. And through that discovery, I uncovered presidential campaign songs. Probably the first songs I came across were by Oscar Brand. He recorded an album in 1960 called Election Songs of the United States. My website has the same title as sort of a tribute to that original Oscar Brand album.
I quickly realized those songs were mainly using old Irish or English tunes and also very popular minstrel songs, so I started to draw a parallel to understand how those songs were used in elections, and I became fascinated with it more and more. Eventually, in college, it actually became the topic of my senior thesis, so my interests haven’t gone away since then. Now I’m in a position where I can bring those [songs] to the market and to those who haven’t really been exposed to this music previously.
DGM: The folks at Trax on the Trail are glad you did! How do you develop the lyrics to your songs? What is your process?
SS: The process really first started with a melody and a concept. Those were the most important things to the songs. The tunes that I chose were probably just as, if not more important, than the lyrics. My rule was that I had to start with a 19th-century song, and it had to be a parody that sort of made sense. And very often, I actually drew from original campaign song lyrics. For example, “The Clinton Girl’s Song” is actually a complete rip off of “The Clay Girl’s Song,” which was from Henry Clay’s 1844 presidential campaign. [The song lyrics were published in The National Clay Melodist, A Collection of Popular and Patriotic Songs (1844)] So I obviously knew what the melody and concept would be. Then, I needed to modernize it while staying somewhat true to the original concept. So, with a song like that, it was really taking the first and last verses and keeping them the same, and then figuring out exactly how I could make it more modern and associate it with the modern world.
Of course, in “The Clinton Girl’s Song,” the girl is stalking some guy on Facebook or Twitter, and any guy she dates has to be fan of Hillary Clinton, so I really just sort of try to come up with fun rhymes and have a couple of people look over it and clean it up so that it makes more sense, because I’m not a professional lyricist or songwriter. I’m really someone who is interested in the concept of campaign songs. I’m not very artistic, and you can tell from my voice [that] I’m probably not a very great singer either.
DGM: You mentioned that the tunes had to be 19th century. How do you decide which tune to use? For example, why did you choose “Battle Cry of Freedom?”
SS: Let me give you the best example When I was coming up with the concept, the title track was the most important. This song is actually neutral. It is not for Clinton or for Trump; it pokes fun at the political process. I basically looked at history, and I realized that this is actually the first campaign since 1944 where two candidates came from the same state. Of course, the last time just happened to be from New York also—it was Thomas E. Dewey and Franklin D. Roosevelt. So, I had to come up with a song that was New Yorkish, and most of the New York songs that we know today are from the 20th century, like the Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York.” So coming up with a tune that was related to New York—there was only one obvious choice, and it’s “The Sidewalks of New York,” which also played prominently in Al Smith’s campaign in 1928. It is perfect in the sense that it comes from presidential campaign history; it is a song from the 19th century, and [the phrase] “Can-di-dates from New York” has syllables very close to “Sidewalks of New York.” It is just an obvious choice.
A lot of times the choice was almost already there for me. I just had to reapply the lyrics. So it is a title, for example, like “We’ll Give Em Billy,” which is one of the pro-Clinton songs. If that sounds weird, it is because it is based off of the song “We’ll Give ‘Em Jessie” from John C. Fremont’s 1856 campaign. Jessie Fremont was the candidate’s wife, so I thought it would be somewhat obvious that if Hillary Clinton were running in the 19th century and her husband was an ex-president, wouldn’t she have a song called “We’ll Give ‘Em Billy”?
The song’s preexisting tune “Wait for the Wagon” was already there, and it was very popular. It was used in a lot of songs and a lot of other campaigns. Millard Fillmore had it for one of his songs in 1856, and it was very popular during the Civil War as well—there is a song called “The Southern Wagon.” That tune and melody had so much historical significance. It was natural that I didn’t need to change it.
A couple of places where I did think of selections, such as “Hillary’s Land,” I picked the tune “Dixie’s Land,” because any Democratic politician today would never have a campaign song with “Dixie’s Land” right? I thought so, but in the 19th century, anyone would have used this song because it wasn’t as associated with the South. I think that association really comes more in the Civil Rights era and not before. Since I’m trying to put this election in the context of the 19th century, I thought it would be not only almost humorous, but also appropriate, to use that as the melody. So, as you can see, if you go through each song lyric, there’s a specific reason why each melody was chosen. A lot of times it was merely tied to the original, but a few times I broke with the past and had to make editorial decisions.
DGM: I had trouble identifying some of the tunes.
SS: That is one of the important things about our website. Every song has the lyrics and the melody. It’s listed under “air,” next to all the songs, which is a very old-fashioned word for tune or melody. Which song stumped you, out of curiosity?
DGM: The one called “Washington is a Hard Road to Travel.”
SS: Great choice. That is to the tune of “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” by Dan Emmett, who is the same man that wrote “Dixie’s Land.” Now there was a very famous song during the Civil War called “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel,” which was basically a southern parody that pretended to be in the shoes of Union troops who struggled with their Richmond campaign to try to take over the South. The song outlined all of their mishaps and losses throughout this military campaign. So “Washington is a Hard Road to Travel” outlines Hillary Clinton’s struggle in Washington throughout her career and many political scandals.
DGM: Got it. The second one to stump me was “Oh I’m a Good Ole Worker.”
SS: The original tune is “Joe Bowers,” which is a very famous old Irish melody. Its most popular usage was in the song titled “Oh I’m a Good Ole Rebel” after the Civil War. And that song is about an ex-Confederate soldier who is dissatisfied with the Confederate loss and will never give up and never really put down his gun. Even if he can’t go into battle, he will fight the war spiritually. “Oh I’m a Good Ole Worker” is basically about a dissatisfied blue-collar worker who finds himself attracted to Donald Trump.
DGM: So this next one, I was close to thinking I knew it [the tune]” “When This Old Hat Was New.”
SS: This tune was used all over the place in 19th-century political music. The tune is an old Robert Burns poem, called “John Anderson My Jo.” And it is one of the most beautiful melodies, and you could find dozens of songs written to this tune. There are critiques of James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and there is actually a song on my first album [Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election] called “Abraham Ain’t It So” which was a pro-George McClellan, very anti-Abraham Lincoln song. So this title, if it sounds like it is a very 19th-century title, that is because it is. I ripped this straight out of a William Henry Harrison songbook from 1840. It was called “When This Old Hat Was New.” I thought it would be an interesting choice, since both Clinton and Trump have been around since the late 80s/early 90s and have been prominent figures. It is almost like we are reliving the 90s now with this campaign. I thought it would be an interesting way to look back on Hillary Clinton’s scandals—hey, when this old hat was new, she was doing the same old things. I think that was a very funny take on this campaign season.
DGM: So one of the Clinton songs uses “Oh Susannah”…
SS: “Oh That Donald” is “Oh Susannah,” yes. A great choice because “Oh Susannah” is used in hundreds and hundreds of songs. It is just all over the place. Of course it is a popular children’s song today, but it was also popular in the 1850s and was used prominently in many campaign songs. The funny thing about this is, a great lesson in history, is that despite all these songs built off of Stephen Foster tunes, he never saw a penny of any of this. The way copyright laws were back then, it was very difficult to collect anything when someone parodied a song. When he died he was pretty much broke, despite his songs being used over and over again by everyone under the sun.
DGM: Can you talk a bit about the production process? Are you the one who arranges the music?
SS: I actually hire singers to record the music. When I did my first album, Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election, I was very big on authenticity and not changing around lyrics to change the meaning of the songs. And one thing you notice from Oscar Brand, and also anyone who records old minstrel songs, is that they clean up the lyrics because they aren’t appropriate for contemporary audiences. I don’t do that. There were artists who were really reluctant to put their name with the album. At that point I figured, well, you know, it is probably better that the songs stand for themselves. The songs should have more meaning than the individual performers. In the 19th century, there were not any songs that were associated with any individual, because the lyrics were published in songs or song sheets. My company is called American Pioneer Music, so everything I release is under the name American Pioneer Singers. I hope to keep with that tradition as I continue moving forward. What we essentially have here is a number of artists and voices on the album. Basically the artist records the song, I give feedback, and we make a couple of modifications if it is a bit off. The process includes myself and the freelancers I hire, and I critique it and try to make small improvements. I don’t read or write music, so it is really me commenting based on my ear. That is how the songs really get arranged.
DGM: Do you do much post-production? In the way it is recorded, I don’t know if it is the particular voices and instruments that make it have an archaic sound, or if you are doing something post-production that makes it sound more “old.”
SS: I’m not really sure. I don’t add anything post-production. Anything we do is as raw as possible. So you notice there is nothing electric, right? Everything is acoustic. You hear in both albums mostly guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Occasionally you have tambourine, maybe a drum at the end of a couple songs, so they build at the end, which is really a little bit more for modern audiences who can’t stand too much repetition. It’s amazing, if you look at some of these older campaign songs, they are very very long. It is interesting that people don’t get tired of the same melodies, right? It is the same melodies year after year many times. I think that is one of the big breaks between what we see with the modern campaign songs that you study and the original campaign songs. They are really not part of the same tradition.
DGM: This is all really fascinating. When I listened to the album, I knew in the back of my mind there was an elaborate process as to how you made a lot of these decisions. But, to be honest, there was something about the music that was so entertaining and uplifting, I sort of turned my “scholar switch” off. This album is just fun to listen to. There is something about your work that has the power of endurance on its side. I think there is something that is rooted in history and timeless at the same time.
SS: I’m fascinated that you say that, because that’s exactly what I was going for. I think Pete Seeger said, when someone asked him, what’s the meaning of a song and he said, “Well what does it mean to you?” I’m happy that I broke through your scholarly lens, that I just make you human again. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Transcribed and abridged by Sarah Kitts and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.
For more on Stuart Schimler and American Pioneer Music, see http://www.electionsongs.com/home.