History of “Hail to the Chief”
For centuries “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band has honored Presidents with ‘Hail to the Chief,” music indelibly associated with America’s Commander-in-Chief. Used to herald the arrival of the President, this piece also is performed at the ceremony to honor the newly inaugurated President immediately after he has taken the oath of office.
Though the Marine Band performs “Hail to the Chief” hundreds of times each year for the Chief Executive, the song did not originate as a Presidential salute.
Composed as a stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, “Hail to the Chief” is attributed to English composer James Sanderson. The melody was based on an old Gaelic air, and the song was first performed in the United States in 1812.
It was not until 1829 that the first documented performance of the music in the presence of the President of the United States occurred. On May 29, 1829, the Marine Band performed at the ceremony celebrating the laying of the cornerstone for the first lock on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. As President Andrew Jackson departed the ceremony, the Marine Band performed "Hail to the Chief" in his honor. Newspapers reported that the music elicited three spontaneous outbursts of acclamation for the President from the crowd in attendance.
Two First Ladies are credited with first instructing the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” at a Presidential appearance. Julia Tyler, the vivacious young second wife of President John Tyler, was an amateur composer. The Tylers entertained frequently and it was at these parties that she reportedly asked the Marine Band to announce the President’s arrival by performing “Hail to the Chief.”
First Lady Sara Polk is also credited with using “Hail to the Chief” to announce the arrival of the President. President James. K. Polk was an unassuming man of slight stature, and his arrival at large functions frequently went unnoticed. To avoid this embarrassment, Mrs. Polk reportedly asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to announce him.
Over the years this tradition continued, and in 1954 the Department of Defense established an official policy making “Hail to the Chief” a musical tribute to the President of the United States.