It’s Campaign Season – So “Keep the Ball Rolling”!

By Sibylle Machat

Have you ever heard the expression “keep the ball rolling” and wondered about its origins?

An antecedent of the phrase stems from the British “keep the ball up,” but the phrase itself is only 180 years old and originated during the 1840 presidential election between Democratic candidate Martin van Buren and Wig candidate William Henry Harrison. In this election, Harrison’s presidential campaign introduced so-called victory balls – globes made from tin and leather, about ten feet in diameter, that were pushed from one campaign rally and from one town to the next. Photography was not around in the 1840s, of course, but according to illustrations from the time, these victory balls looked something like this:

Credit: “1840 Victory Ball illustration” in Carr, T. Turn out! To the rescue!. G. E. Blake, Philadelphia, monographic, 1840. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

 

But this is only the beginning of the story:

The expression “keep the ball rolling” entered common speech in part due to its popularization in the (unofficial) Harrison campaign song, written by Alexander Coffmann Ross, and entitled “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” William Henry Harrison’s campaign nicknames were “hero of Tippecanoe,” “old Tippecanoe,” or simply “Tippecanoe” for the 1811 battle between Native American and U.S. forces in Tippecanoe, Indiana; John Tyler was his running mate. The quite partisan and less-than-polite lyrics towards Martin Van Buren read:

Oh what has caused this great commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball, it’s rolling on
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van,
Van is a used up man.
And with them we’ll beat little Van.

Here’s the sheet music, in an arrangement by G. E. Blake:

Credit: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too sheet music” in Tippecanoe and Tyler too! A comic glee. G. E. Blake, Philadelphia, monographic, 1840. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

You can listen to an old-fashioned recording in the Smithsonian’s Folkways Recordings Collection or find a more modern version by They Might Be Giants on YouTube. And this isn’t even the only U.S. presidential election to feature victory balls – or campaign songs. Victory balls were revived for Benjamin Harrison’s 1888 campaign – and campaign songs have been with us for most elections since.

Credit: “1888 Campaign Ball photo” in Great Republican Harrison and Morton campaign ball. [N.Y.: Wm. B. Holmes, publisher, 775 Broadway, N.Y] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
So, now that primary season is coming up, do you think it might be time to revive the campaign/victory balls? Or do you want to get started on writing the 2020 campaign song yourself?

 

Dr. Sibylle Machat is head of the M.A. program “Kultur – Sprache – Medien (KSM)” at Europa-Universität Flensburg where she also teaches in the fields of U.S. literary and cultural studies. She earned her M.A. degree in English & American Studies, Media & Communication Studies and Business Studies at the University of Mannheim as well as an M.A. in United States Studies at the University of London. Then she moved to Flensburg where she earned her doctorate with a thesis on “Narrative Structures, World Constructions, and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel.” When she’s not busy as an administrator, Sibylle enjoys sailing, hiking, and photography. You can find some results of that latter endeavor at www.sibyllogy.com.