The Story Behind the Presidential Anthem "Hail To The Chief"

Jul 30, 2017

Even though it's not a universal favorite among presidents, "Hail to the Chief" remains their official entrance theme.  WRTI's Meridee Duddleston has more on the origin of the march that begins with the ultimate in fanfare, not three, but four "Ruffles and Flourishes."  

Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish playwright and poet, wrote the poem "The Lady of the Lake" in 1810.
Credit Library of Congress

The Department of Defense declared “Hail to the Chief” the official presidential arrival tribute in 1954. But the story behind the tune begins with a blockbuster romantic poem completed by Sir Walter Scott in 1810. It didn’t have a thing to do with presidential pomp. Scott’s six-part poem titled “Lady of the Lake” involved a romantic struggle and a Scottish chieftain’s losing fight over territory in the Scottish Highlands.

The poem was a popular sensation. It made Scott famous and inspired musical adaptations performed in theaters in London and Edinburgh.

Philadelphia is credited with playing an early role the process that put “Hail to the Chief” on its presidential path. The Library of Congress notes one musical version, including the presidential melody with lyrics from the poem, opened in the long-defunct New Theater on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day 1812. Around the same time, a Philadelphia publisher printed sheet music titled “March and Chorus, ‘Hail to the Chief,’ in the Dramatic Romance of The Lady of the Lake.”

It was first used in a presidential context in 1815 to honor the belated George Washington and the end of the War of 1812, under the title “Wreaths for the Chieftain.” It was in 1829 that Andrew Jackson became the first living president to be honored by "Hail to the Chief." And when did the tradition of playing the anthem to signal the arrival of the president begin? It was First Lady Julia Tyler, wife of President John Tyler, who first made that request on behalf of her husband.

The song evolved over time and it’s the lyrics by Albert Gamse (1901-1974) that are known as the current words to “Hail to the Chief,” although they are rarely sung.

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.

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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!

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Radio script:

MUSIC: "Ruffles and Flourishes" tune, "Hail to the Chief," "The Presidential Polonaise"

Meridee Duddleston: Asked to name his favorite song, John F. Kennedy famously replied, “I think ‘Hail to the Chief’ has a nice ring to it.”

MD: The story behind the official presidential anthem begins with a six-part romantic poem penned by Sir Walter Scott in the early 1800s called “Lady of the Lake.” Scott’s tale was about power—not pomp. But one line, signaling the arrival of a Scottish chieftain, reads “Hail to the chief who in triumph advances.”

The popular poem sparked a flurry of musical adaptations—including the familiar melody in a song composed by a London theater orchestra conductor named James Sanderson. A version soon hopped across the pond to Philadelphia where it was performed at a theater on Chestnut Street. And in just a couple of years—with new lyrics—it made its way into patriotic repertoire.

In the late 1800s, President Chester Arthur didn’t much like what had, by then, become the presidential standard. He asked John Philip Sousa for a replacement.

MUSIC: "The Presidential Polonaise"

Sousa’s “The Presidential Polonaise” was just a one-term favorite. But it's the tune attributed to Sanderson, born of Walter Scott’s poem hailing a Scottish chief, that announces the President of the United States.