Monday, February 18, 2013

Sarah Polk and "Hail to the Chief"

So did you know that the song “Hail to the Chief" did not originate as a salute to the president? The phrase dates back to a poem by Sir Walter Scott called “The Lady of the Lake.” Published in 1812, the poem was so popular in England that it was adapted into a musical play which later made its way to the United States.

The first time the song was played to honor an American president was at a ceremony in Boston in 1815 to commemorate George Washington's birthday. Andrew Jackson was the first living president to be honored by "Hail to the Chief" on January 9, 1829. The song was also played at Martin Van Buren's inauguration ceremonies on March 4, 1837 and at other social occasions during his administration.

According to historians at the Library of Congress, Julia Tyler, the wife of John Tyler, was the first to specifcially request that the song be played to announce the president’s arrival at an official function. But it was Sarah Polk who requested that the song be routinely played for presidential entrances.

According to White House historian William Seale, Mrs. Polk was concerned that her husband James "was not an impressive figure, so some announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed. At large affairs the band...rolled the drums as they played the march...and a way was cleared for the President."

Maybe you've heard the lyrics:

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 co-operation
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!


In 1954, the Department of Defense recognized "Hail to the Chief" as the official musical tribute for presidential events. Today, the song, along with its preceding fanfare known as "Ruffles and Flourishes," is played by the U.S. Marine Band to announce the arrival of the President at State Dinners and other formal events.

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