- Illustration by Maria Bilinski Shain/ Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
- Lincoln in 1857, around the time of his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas
Let's be honest: Anybody who's an inspiration will occasionally inspire something that's awful. In Abraham Lincoln's case, there's the regrettable "The Tears on Lincoln's Face" by Johnny Cash's brother, Tommy, and "Lincoln's Eyes," a drag of a love song by Mercury Rev. But Lincoln's had his pop music highlights, too. We collect nine of them below, starting with the tunes that put Lincoln in the place of a big thinker and liberator from a small cabin in the Midwest.
"Young Abe Linoln (Make a Tall, Tall Man)"
(from Johnny Horton Makes History, 1960)
In two minutes, country music's saga-song hitmaker Johnny Horton traces the rise of the "tall, tall man" Abe Lincoln: The little boy living in a cabin in the woods becomes the young student walking to school becomes the wise lawyer people trusted becomes the president who "hated to fight his own South land." It's a reductive classic and a fitting introduction to our most standard rendition of Lincoln's life.
"Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step Mother!"
(from Illinoise, 2005)
Songwriter Sufjan Stevens often lands split decisions of scorn and praise for his baroque pop numbers, especially on a pair of albums devoted to the history and people of Michigan and Illinois. On this, the most guilelessly charming number from his Land of Lincoln set, he settles for guitar, banjo and accordion and packs the action into Decatur localism and iconography: "Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater/ But Abraham Lincoln was The Great Emancipator," Stevens sings in harmony, referring to Lincoln's triumph over Douglas' racist rhetoric in Decatur in 1860. These five seconds, sung from the perspective of a precocious child, capture the glow lingering above Lincoln's legacy.
"Talkin' World War III Blues"
(from Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
Dylan misquotes Carl Sandburg quoting Lincoln, singing in his young, nasal reed, "Half of the people can be part right all of the time/ Some of the people can be all right part of the time/ But all the people can't be all right all the time/ I think Abraham Lincoln said that." Lincoln's verb of choice was "fooling," as later invoked by Bob Marley and mangled by the 43rd president, George W. Bush. Dylan's Lincoln nod cleverly introduces the idea of solidarity, or—given the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights—working together so that we all may live.
"Lincoln Freed Me Today (The Slave)"
(from Blessed Are, 1971)
The second track on Baez's Blessed Are is her hit take on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," the Southern epic issued by The Band two years before, written from the perspective of a common man. Similarly, "The Slave" recounts Southern hardship, peering at the world through the eyes of someone who's forgotten and even grown to fear his potential freedom. Preceding Neil Young's Harvest by a year, "The Slave" ruminates over a slow country-rock burn, its slide guitar and shuffling rhythms highlighting the song's self-doubt and, in the end, its anxiety for the future.
Has a revolution or liberation ever been so perfectly executed that the winners and the losers were able to reconcile their differences and resume life? Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and his leadership during the Civil War goaded America toward liberty for all, but it embittered many Southerners who'd been restored to the Union. Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, left Reconstruction in the hands of Andrew Johnson and the radical Republicans, and we can only guess how it would have progressed under Lincoln. American progress has always been sporadic and speckled, and these next cuts put him in that shades-of-gray continuum.
"Abraham, Martin & John"
(from That's the Way Love Is, 1970)
Written after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, this standard wonders where the titular liberators "who freed a lot of people" before dying young have gone. In the closing verse, they're seen heading over the hill with the second Kennedy to be killed during the '60s. Gaye's beautiful take builds through cavernous strings and a rhythm section that pauses for him to emphasize each tragedy in that confiding, intimate voice: "I just looked around/ and he was gone." Dion had already turned this into a hit, and Dylan covered it after John Lennon's murder in 1980.
(from EP2, 2006)
Brooklyn's spry pop answer to "Abraham, Martin & John," "Abe Lincoln" laments the death of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, Gandhi and Malcolm X before wondering, "Ronald Reagan, why oh why?/ How do you manage to slide on by?" It's charming, contagious and sharp enough to allow us to forgive that questionable melodica solo in the middle.
"Dear Mr. Supercomputer"
(from The Avalanche, 2006)
Stevens doesn't hold back on this cut from the companion collection to Illinoise, filling space with choral chirps, arpeggiated guitars, rhythm shifts and bursts of ecclesiastic horn. Gone, too, is the cheery spirit of "Decatur," swapped for a sometimes maudlin reflection on a world gone wrong that includes unfortunate lines like "1-2-3-4-5-6-7/ All computers go to heaven" (twice). But Lincoln gets a shout-out as a beacon of hope and the leader of "The Great Emancipation." Wrong or right, Stevens notes that we've since been barreling downhill.
HANK WILLIAMS JR.
(from America: The Way I See It, 1990)
If you just hear the hook, Hank Williams Jr.'s "Mr. Lincoln" may register as a surprising settlement from the proud Southerner who once sang, "If the South woulda won/ we'd have had it made." But listen closely to the verses as they play out over drums swiped from Phil Collins and a thin mandolin rain that would make Bruce Hornsby furrow the brow: People are killing people in the streets of Nashville and getting off "scot-free," and folks are suing the gun companies. "They let dangerous men outta prison now/ Yes, sir, I'm afraid it's so," Williams says, invoking Lee Atwater's man, Willie Horton, after vindictively asking, "Ain't the law changed a lot since 1861?" By that, do you mean the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 15th and 24th amendments, Bocephus?
"April 14, Part 1"/ "Revival II"
(from Time (The Revelator), 2001)
There's "Beware the Ides of March," of course, but what about "Beware the day after the Ides of April"? John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14—exactly 47 years before the Titanic struck its iceberg and 70 before the Dust Bowl's Black Sunday. It's on this day that Welch's narrator realizes how small she is, or how the world keeps spinning as a cycle of small events punctuated by the occasional world-shaking moment. She's at a rock club watching a band no one cares about, trying to reckon her life with the rest of the world.