McKinley Hotter Than Miley Right Now

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When was the last time William McKinley got so much press? Say what you will about Obama’s decision to return the nation’s highest peak to its traditional name, Denali, but taking his name off Mount McKinley has certainly given the 25th president some unexpected exposure. As TPM put it, “McKinley Presidential Library Just Glad People Are Finally Talking About Him.” Or as Tim Murphy snarked:

As a particularly history-obsessed publication, we at The Atlantic have taken the challenge of McKinleyblogging up wholeheartedly, with Krishnadev, Yoni, and me all weighing in on aspects. One important point that shouldn’t be lost is this: Even if McKinley’s name no longer adorns the mountain, that doesn’t mean that his legacy in American culture has gone—quite the opposite.

For one thing, McKinley was the first U.S. president to be captured in moving pictures. On YouTube, you can find footage of McKinley’s inauguration in 1897, though the picture isn’t great. (Vice President Garret Hobart can be seen much more clearly—though that’s probably not much consolation for him. Hobart died before McKinley’s term was up, and his successor, a young war hero named Theodore Roosevelt, became president when McKinley was killed.)

Even older, via Rebecca Sinderbrand, is a clip of McKinley striding around his house in Canton, Ohio:

That version of the video is set to McKinley’s 1896 campaign tune, which, to put it charitably, has not aged especially well. But McKinley’s legacy in song is arguably stronger than his legacy on celluloid.

McKinley’s shooting by an anarchist on September 6, 1901 (he didn’t die for several days) came just in time to enter the American folk canon. A song about the assassination eventually became a country blues standard. As Sean Wilentz wrote in Bob Dylan in America, the song “was serious enough in its early versions but became also comically nonsensical on the recordings that made it famous more than twenty years later.” John Renbourn’s haunting rewrite of the song from 1971 perhaps gives some idea what that dirge would have been like, but here’s Charlie Poole’s more comical version from 1926:

It’s a dark sort of humor. In a nod to McKinley’s slow death from a bullet that couldn’t be removed, Poole sings:

Doc come a-running, takes off his specs
Said, “Mr. McKinley, better pass in your checks
You're bound to die, bound to die.”

And the song takes a jab at McKinley’s successor, who to the song’s authors might have seemed more like a dilettante born into wealth than one of the nation’s greatest presidents:

Roosevelt in the White House drinking out of a silver cup
McKinley in the graveyard, he'll never wake up
He's gone a long, long time.

Poole died young in 1931, but thanks to the folk tradition and the wonders of the phonograph, the song has survived McKinley by more than a century. The bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe waxed it in 1954, at a frantic pace that makes it hard to credit as a lament. Thanks to the inclusion of Poole’s rendition in Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, Bob Dylan became familiar with the tune, which he later played on his radio show. A sheaf of other artists have covered “White House Blues.” John Mellencamp even rewrote the song as a protest against George W. Bush. Like many Bush-era protest songs (I’m looking at you, Neil Young), it’s not likely to endure.

McKinley, however, lives on in song—which, if you ask me, is better than a remote, snow-capped mountain.