John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been making nerdy pop music as They Might Be Giants since 1982. The Massachusetts pair released their debut album in 1986. One of their best known songs is their 1990 cover of ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ in 1990. The b-side for the song was a profile of the 11th American President, James K. Polk.
While Polk’s not among the best known US presidents, his four year term from 1845 to 1849 was significant. He expanded America’s territory to the Pacific coast, largely due to his annexation of Texas and a war with Mexico.
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.John Flansburgh (Green Shoelace, March 2010):
The information-packed format of ‘James K. Polk’ is a precedent for They Might Be Giant’s later children’s albums. The group aimed to write something similar to Johnny Horton’s ‘The Battle of New Orleans’.
While the original version of the song was tucked away on a single, it was a fan favourite and was re-recorded for the group’s sixth album Factory Showroom. The re-recorded version of ‘James K. Polk’ featured Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel playing a musical saw.
In 1844, the Democrats were split
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
James Buchanan, a moderate
Louis Cass, a general and expansionist
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump
Austere, severe, he held few people dear
His oratory filled his foes with fear
The factions soon agreed
He’s just the man we need
To bring about victory
Fulfill our manifest destiny
And annex the land the Mexicans command
And when the votes were cast the winner was
Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump
In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tariffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term
But precious few have mourned the passing of
Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump