These days when you see something with the title of "White House Blues" a million possibilities spring to mind. Perhaps it is about the election and who will be entering the White House. Maybe it is an expression of sadness concerning Obama's upcoming departure. Those blues themes would make sense where this a protest song. It would be an expression of unhappiness with the country and where it is going.
In this particular case, however, I am thinking of something else. You might have to turn up the volume on the video but it is what we've got. "White House Blues" is an old song, first recorded by the banjo player Charlie Poole back in 1926. However, it is probably even older than that. Poole, himself, knew a thing or two about the blues in both his musical and personal life. A factory worker, musical visionary, and hard drinker, Poole died of heart attack in 1931, bringing a 13-week bender to a close. Yes. He had been drinking steadily for 13 weeks.
The purpose of this song--other than to entertain--is actually historical. That is, it preserves a moment in history. The song, itself, is about the 1931 assassination of President McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Mckinley was shot twice. One of the bullets was found. However, the other one got lost somewhere in the soft tissue of the corpulent president and gangrene set in.. This is why both our version and Poole's begins with the lines "McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled, the doctor said 'McKinley I can't find the ball.' You're bound to die. You're bound to die.." It is historically accurate! Cheerful.
In fact, this song is oddly perky, which is what initially attracted me to it. The juxtaposition of words and tone may be part of the reason for its survival. Folk music loves a dance-able murder ballad. In addition the chord progression is very simple and fun to play, so many gifted bluegrass musicians use it as a platform for their improvisational solos. There are plenty of examples of this online. The singers mess a bit with the tune to fit their own treatment as well as that of the soloists. That is OK. It is a folk song. Again...you can't break it.
I also find it interesting because of its rather casual treatment of violence. A couple of weeks after we played this in church, The country experienced the Orlando nightclub shooting and a number of similar events in short order. Shootings of and by police have increasingly appeared in the news. Even politicians began to make threats toward their opponents. This song reminds us that we have struggled with issues like these for a long time.
On the technical side, this song makes ample use of 7th chords. This is a key aspect of much of the blues. 7th chords make the song sound ragged and "unfinished" to modern pop-infested ears. Thank God for that! As with the last one, I encourage you to sing along with recordings to learn the words. However, here are the chord changes: G/G7/C7/G7/D7/G. Some folks make that middle G7 (after the C7) a regular G. You can if you want. I do not.
In the video I actually have the uke capo'ed at the 9th fret. I did this to get it out of the range of the banjo. The song is still in G but the chord forms are in C (C/C7/F7/C7/C). Also, I violated ukulele orthodoxy by using a pick! The was done for reasons of texture and volume. Volume is also why I used the "Fluke" instead of a more conventional uke. It is the loudest thing I've got...other than the mando of course.
As you can see we have a slightly different instrumentation on this from what one might think. We have a uke, a banjo, and a bass. Each instrument keeps out of the way of the others. We didn't use a regular guitar because this way it had more of an "Old Time" feel. Guitars were actually a bit late to American music (certainly when compared to the banjo). Also, the uke and the banjo are two of the greatest instruments our country ever produced. They deserve to be heard!
Anyway, here it is, a song from another era that--like ours--was filled with stress and division. Maybe that is one of its most important functions for today. As a country we have been bitterly divided before but have found a way to come back together and move on. Perhaps looking into the past, we can gain some assurance that we will survive yet again.
If you check out other videos you will see the range of approaches and treatments. I am including two here.
The first is the original recording by Charlie Poole.
Here is a different video featuring the bluegrass tendency to use it as a platform for solos...