7 Songs for Inauguration Day and Other State Ceremonies

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Every four years, the United States of America continues the Great Experiment and inaugurates a president. Music plays an important part in the occasion and festivities. To that end, here are some of the songs you’ll hear on Inauguration Day and other state ceremonies.

1. "Ruffles and Flourishes"

You’ll recognize “Ruffles and Flourishes” as the fanfare performed immediately before “Hail to the Chief.” The drums play the ruffles; the bugles play the flourishes. The fanfare was chosen to precede the presidential anthem while William McKinley was in office. There’s a hierarchy of importance to how many repetitions of ruffles and flourishes are played at an event. The president always gets four. Ambassadors returning from abroad on unofficial business get three, as do lieutenant generals. Major generals get two, and brigadier generals get one lowly ruffle and flourish. (Consuls general get none, making them the ninjas of the State Department.)

2 & 3. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and "Hands Across the Sea"

During formal ceremonies at which civilian officials of the Department of Defense are present, the band plays ruffles and flourishes followed by the final 32 bars of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

If equivalent defense officials from foreign governments are present, the band plays “Hands Across the Sea.” John Philip Sousa composed both songs.

4. "Yankee Doodle"

When foreign leaders are welcomed to the White House, the military and State Department hold a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn. The president is first welcomed with ruffles and flourishes and “Hail to the Chief,” and upon arrival of the foreign dignitary, ruffles and flourishes are played, followed by the appropriate national anthem, followed by “The Star Spangled Banner.” Heads of state (e.g. the Queen) receive a 21-gun salute by the 3rd Infantry Regiment; heads of government (e.g. the prime minister) receive a 19-gun salute.

Following a review of the honor guard by the president and his guest, the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, dressed in the parade uniform of the Continental Army, marches across the South Lawn and performs "Yankee Doodle." (N.B. the uniform is predominantly red, as 18th-century military musicians wore the reverse color of the rank-and-file. The Continental Army wore blue with red accents, therefore the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps wears red with blue. The whole reason for this is, because before the days of radio communication, messages were relayed down the line by drums and bugles. An officer would need to be able to identify the nearest musician in a hurry.)

The only time “Yankee Doodle” is not performed is when the visiting dignitary is from England. Before the Revolutionary War, British military officers would sing “Yankee Doodle” to mock colonial soldiers. (“Doodle” derives from the German dodel, or “fool.”) After the war, the song wasn’t so funny anymore. There’s really no need to rub things in by playing it for the Queen.

5. "Hail, Columbia"

When the vice president is sworn in, he will receive four ruffles and flourishes followed by his office’s official song, “Hail, Columbia.” The song has a storied history, and its performance at inaugurations precedes “The Star Spangled Banner” by more than a century. It was composed for George Washington’s first swearing-in, and was originally titled “The President’s March.” During the 19th century, “Hail, Columbia” was the de facto national anthem, giving way to “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1931.

The chorus to “Hail, Columbia” begins:

Firm, united let us be, Rallying round our liberty, As a band of brothers joined, Peace and safety we shall find.

6. "The Star Spangled Banner"

“The Star Spangled Banner” was adopted by Congress as the national anthem in 1931, and signed into law by Herbert Hoover. Like “Hail to the Chief,” the song started out as a poem—this one famously written by Francis Scott Key, who was inspired following the Battle of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. (The name of the poem was, appropriately, The Defense of Ft. McHenry.) The “rockets’ red glare” was provided by British ships bombarding the fort, which withstood an attack of Congreve rockets and somewhere around 1800 cannonballs.

Key set his lyrics to the official song of the Anacreontic Society, which was an 18th-century musicians’ club in Britain.

7. "Hail to the Chief"

The presidential anthem “Hail to the Chief” was inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott, with its title taken from the second canto:

Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances! Honored and blessed be the ever-green Pine! Long may the tree, in his banner that glances, Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line!

The poem was later adopted into a play, and composer James Sanderson set the verses to music, published under the title “March and Chorus in the Dramatic Romance of the Lady of the Lake.” Following a performance of the song in 1815 to honor the late George Washington’s birthday, the public began a slow association between “Hail to the Chief” and the president of the United States. Its first performance at an inauguration was in 1837, for Martin Van Buren. It wasn’t until Harry Truman was in office that the Department of Defense formally adopted the song to honor the president.