Rocking the vote: 44 songs about 44 presidents

July 3, 2009


Like millions of Americans, Christian Kiefer, a history teacher in Sacramento, Calif., spent last Nov. 4 glued to his television, watching as events unfolded in Chicago's Grant Park.

"We all watched it on TV, and we admit that we teared up when the news came and CNN scrolled the banner [announcing that Barack Obama had become the 44th U.S. president]," Kiefer says.

Now, on Saturday, Kiefer will be onstage in the same park performing the song he wrote about Obama, "Someone to Wake," as part of Taste of Chicago's celebration of indie rock.

"It will definitely be somewhat cathartic to be standing in the same geography and playing that song there at the end of the show on the Fourth of July," he says.

Of course, he and his bandmates have 43 songs about the 43 other presidencies first.

All of this presidential rock started one day in 2006, when Kiefer's buddy Jefferson Pitcher, formerly of Above the Orange Trees, announced he was taking part in "February album-writing month," a challenge sponsored by the Web site Pitcher decided to write 14 songs about the first 14 presidents of the United States in the allotted 28 days.

"I decided, 'Well, that's easy; I'll do the next 14!'" Kiefer says. "Then, with a little bit of math, we determined there were only 15 presidents left, so we needed to get one more guy on board."

Enter a third songwriting friend, Matt Gerken of Nice Monster.

"So, in the month of February 2006, we wrote 42 songs about 42 presidents. We held off on George W. [Bush] until slightly later, and have since added Obama, as well."

Last September, Standard Recording Company released the fruits of these labors as the triple-CD set "Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies." (The Obama tune later was made available online at Joining Kiefer, Pitcher and Gerken was an impressive roster of underground rockers, including members of Chicago's Califone and Dolly Varden, as well as Rosie Thomas, Bill Callahan of Smog, Alan Sparhawk of Low, and Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon.

For the big Chicago shows, the Songs for Presidents core trio will share the stage with Tim Kinsella, Jon Langford, Anna Fermin, Sin Ropas and others.

"We'll play six or 10 songs and then have a whole slew of Chicago folks playing our songs," Kiefer says. "On the one hand, it's a complete ego indulgence, but on the other, it makes for a better show. For the park show, we'll have two drum sets up there and six guitar amps and two bass rigs, which means there should be no break between songs and the audience milling around with the food on a stick will get constant sound."

In the wrong hands -- say, those of They Might Be Giants or Barenaked Ladies -- a project like this could come off as an obnoxious hipster version of "Schoolhouse Rock!" What elevates Kiefer, Pitcher and Gerken's work is the quality of the songwriting. Setting aside the historical conceit, these are emotionally moving tunes about complex individuals faced with harrowing moral dilemmas, though there also is a strain of dark humor and sarcasm in the proceedings.

"You know, history gets rewritten; it is tied in with economics, emotions, morality and, especially with the president, mythology and how we mythologize ourselves as a people," Kiefer says. "We turn people like Andrew Jackson [subject of the song "Benevolence"] into great heroes, but for some people, it couldn't be further from the truth. The fact that he is on the $20 bill is a slap in the face to the Native American community in some ways.

"My song about Jackson is me damning him in hindsight and him saying, 'Well, look, in the time period, I articulated the concept of manifest destiny. It was progressive!' He's saying in the song, 'Everything I did was blessed by God; why shouldn't I feel any different?' Which is true, given the time. He had huge support for his policies. Of course, now that that's in the past, we can look back with hopefully a clear vision of what happened. And that sort of thing goes through all the songs."

All the songs, that is, except for the Obama tune, "Someone to Wake," which was written and recorded before there was a presidential track record.

"There has been talk amongst us that we may end up doing another Obama song when we have something to work from," Kiefer says, "maybe after four years, regardless of how that next election goes."