James K. Polk
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|song name||James K. Polk|
|artist||They Might Be Giants|
|releases||Factory Showroom, John Henry + Factory Showroom|
|first played||December 30, 1995 (740 known performances)|
|sung by||John Linnell|
This song was written with childhood friend Mr. Matthew Hill. Originally featured as a b-side, its legacy has grown with hardcore TMBG fans, and now has been resurrected in full hi-fi for Factory Showroom. The lyrics are as factual as we could make them with the reference books handy. James Knox Polk, the 11th President of the U.S., was a dark horse candidate who unexpectedly won the Democratic nomination and the election based on his popularity in the South with his stated goal of annexing Texas, the Southwest, and the Oregon Territories. Once in office he fanned the flames of dispute between the U.S. and Mexico to achieve part of this aim. (The Mexican War is still commemorated in the expression 'Remember the Alamo!') Personally, we find his expansionist policies ruthless and unscrupulous, but the existence of the Western U.S. is largely due to him. The spooky sound halfway into this recording is a 'singing saw,' an actual metal saw stroked with a bow by Mr. Julian Koster.
We were sitting around talking about obscure Presidents in history, and whether they were actually as unimportant during their own time. And the name James K. Polk came up, and we looked him up and found that he was actually a pretty important guy. He started a trumped-up war with Mexico. He supported Manifest Destiny. [...] Basically, he was a real bastard.
A song like, "James K. Polk," is a song John put together with our mutual friend Mathew Hill. I was actually childhood friends with Mathew. They were having a conversation about like, why can’t you just write a completely fact-based song? And "James K. Polk" is an example of really just pouring a bunch of kind of uninspiring historical facts into a biographical song. There's no editorializing in the song. They kind of left out the part about James K. Polk being evil. But that wouldn't have been true to the experiment of the song.
- In 2021, Flansburgh recalled how the band selected Julian Koster to play the singing saw: "John L. was very interested in getting a singing saw to do the melody solo on the recording, and he [Koster] was the man on the scene with the instrument required. I don't know if Brian was the direct connection but it seems very likely."
- On one NPR performance, Linnell sang a version that corrected a couple of factual errors. It changed Polk's action of building to restoring an independent treasury and calls the honorable James Buchanan a "waffler" instead of a moderate.
- On the commentary for the Gigantic DVD, Linnell actually reveals that he is somehow related to the Napoleon of the Stump.
- When TMBG toured live with confetti cannons, they would often fire colorful confetti into the audience during this song, at the end of the line "Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist".
- In 2007, Rolling Stone named this as the #10 "Weirdest Shout-Out" in a song.
- Uncommon in the They Might Be Giants studio canon, this album track was preceded by an entirely different recording of the song released 6 years earlier on the Istanbul (Not Constantinople) EP.
- Inspired by "The Battle of New Orleans", a song most often associated with Johnny Horton.
- It isn't fully accurate to describe Martin van Buren as an "abolitionist", or someone who believed that slavery should be abolished immediately. Rather, he was a "Free Soiler", someone who believed that slavery should not be allowed to expand. Additionally, Oregon was not purchased during the Polk administration, but instead divided between the US and the UK through the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Other than that, the song is extremely accurate.
- Had this song been made in Oregon, it would be pronounced ORE-gun, not Ore-GONE. Linnell often sings this line using the correct pronunciation live.
- Watch it on - Clip recorded live on November 9, 2000 with confetti cannon firing
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James K. Polk is currently ranked #164 out of 910. (125 wikians have given it an average rating of 8.77)