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?


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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