THE BLOG
09/15/2011 12:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Politics and Songwriting: An Uneasy Alliance

MSNBC's Morning Joe host and former congressman (R-FL) Joe Scarborough has released one of the cheesier 9/11 homages cluttering America's bandwidth, a self-penned song and video called "Reason To Believe." The song is so bad that it reminded me of a college friend who asked me to submit a few of his tunes to my songwriter dad. I looked them over and gave him the advice my father always gave me: the vast majority of people who write songs will never have commercial success, so the writing itself had better be its own reward.

I'd give Dad's advice to Scarborough.

You can't copyright a title, but when he strings together the words "Reason To Believe," Scarborough isn't playing Fair. Tim Hardin wrote the "Reason To Believe" in 1965, and it's been a beloved classic ever since, recorded and performed by hundreds of artists, from Rod Stewart and the Youngbloods to Bobby Darin and the Carpenters. Of course, Joe may have taken inspiration from "Reasons To Believe," the ministry of nutball creationist Hugh Ross.

Scarborough's vanity project pales in comparison to the massive oeuvre of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who's recorded lots of his songs during his six terms in office. Best known perhaps is Hatch's sincere tribute to his friend and colleague Ted Kennedy, which may be mediocre lyric writing, but recalls a time -- only a few years ago! -- when a conservative Republican could work closely with and express genuine affection for a liberal Democrat without fearing excommunication. Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain should return to a very private sector now: his video recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," backed by incongruous, horrifying images of 9/11 is like Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" at the end of Dr. Strangelove-- atomic bombs annihilating the planet -- without the irony.

Sonny Bono and John Hall, who both served in Congress, discovered it was better to be a hit songwriter before you run for office. I'll take Bono's "Needles and Pins" (co-written with Jack Nitzsche) and "I Got You Babe" -- the only song by a member of Congress to ascend to the top of the charts -- over that other Bono, writer of such lines as, "Some days are sulky/Some days have a grin/And some days have bouncers and won't let you in." Hall roamed the halls of Congress from 2007-2011, decades after he penned the Top 10 smashes "Still The One" and "Dance With Me."

The case of Louisiana's two-term "singing governor" Jimmie Davis (1899-2000) is a bit more complicated. Davis, a country singing star before he ran for public office, is credited as co-writer, along with Charles Mitchell, of the 1939 standard "You Are My Sunshine," one of the most popular songs of its era. But Davis's political corruption -- impressive even by Louisiana standards -- may have been foreshadowed by the kind of "songsploitation" that was a time-dishonored tradition in those days. Some argue that he didn't write the song at all, but merely purchased the rights with Mitchell for a piddling $35 from Paul Rice who,with his Rice Brothers Gang, recorded "Sunshine" before Davis. Owning a copyright is obviously a far cry from writing a song -- if you buy a Matisse, that doesn't mean you painted it! (Hat tip to Bob Adels.)

Which brings us to the highest-ranking politician ever to have written a No. 1 hit. Exactly 100 years ago, Charles Dawes -- later Calvin Coolidge's Vice President -- composed in a single sitting a classical violin and orchestra piece called "The Dawes Melody," or "Melody In A Major." "It's just a tune that I got in my head, so I set it down," he told an interviewer. Forty years later that melody got stuck in my dad's head. Believing that it was in the public domain, as free of complications as a tune by Chopin or Mozart, he began crafting a lyric, starting with a phrase he'd been fooling around with for years --"It's All In The Game."

By sheer coincidence, Warner Brothers publishing chief Mac Goldman called and asked my dad to write a lyric for the "Dawes Theme," whose copyright, it turned out, was owned by Warners. He wrote "It's All In The Game" in one sitting -- or, as he put it, "it wrote itself." Tommy Edwards hit the Top Twenty with a waltz interpretation in 1952, and six years later he recorded a doo wop version that occupied the Top 10 for a dozen weeks, six of them at No. 1. "Game" was rated by Billboard as the No. 38 top song of all time -- clocking in just ahead of The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" -- and has been recorded by hundreds of artists, including The Four Tops, Van Morrison, Merle Haggard, Ricky Nelson, Isaac Hayes, Jackie DeShannon, Cliff Richard, Cass Elliot, Elton John, Nick Lowe, Bobby Blue Bland, Art Garfunkel, Keith Jarrett and Freddy Fender.

Unfortunately, Dawes never got to hear "It's All In The Game." The day my dad submitted the lyric to Goldman, Dawes died of a heart attack, prompting the publishing exec to quip, "Your lyric must have killed him."

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