In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs we’ve discovered via TV shows.
Stephen Oliver, “Patriotic Song” (1981)
I used to fancy myself a bit of a musical-theater snob, back in the days when I would’ve had no embarrassment thinking I knew what the hell I was talking about. As a high school theater geek, I considered it a point of pride to have an understanding of the history of musicals. “Wait, are you telling me you don’t own the soundtrack to Sondheim’s Passion?” That’s an actual query I admit posing to someone when I was 17. Which is why, when season three of The West Wing came to an end in May 2002 with the magisterial episode “Posse Comitatus,” I felt a little blinkered. I had no idea what song had just played, and it felt like I should.
The episode ends with President Bartlet ordering the assassination of a foreign diplomat who has carried out terrorist attacks against the United States. The confirmation of his death comes while Bartlet and his staff are in New York attending the performance of a William Shakespeare adaptation—the epically long Wars Of The Roses, actually a combination of his first historical tetralogy of plays. Since the performance is name-checked in the episode, I assumed I would have no problem tracking down the tune. Unfortunately, the inclusion of that name was a bit of a feint: It’s actually a song from Stephen Oliver’s The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, a wholly different epically long stage piece. The number, “Patriotic Song,” closes out part one of the three-part, nine-hour performance. So when I confidently strode into the classical music section of my local CD store (see kids, that used to be a thing) asking for the soundtrack to Wars Of The Roses, the raised eyebrows already mocked me well before I was informed there was no such thing.
Thankfully, a friend who actually was well-versed in theater came to my rescue, possibly after my 17th time playing the TV clip for friends and saying, “Anyone? Anyone?” (I was living without Internet access at the time, in case you’re wondering why the hell I didn’t just scour online until I found it. And to be fair, TV-recap culture back then was not quite what it is now.) Finally acquiring “Patriotic Song” felt like an achievement, one that rewarded me by being endlessly listenable. It’s a great song, sending up Gilbert & Sullivan-style verbiage with a dry wit matched by rousing, anthemic music. The whole soundtrack is well worth hearing, but The West Wing’s closing tune always remains a highlight for me. Every time I hear it, I can still see Bartlet getting the news that he has killed someone, and I likewise see myself, watching in stunned silence at a superlative ending to a superlative season of television.
Post-script: In researching this piece, I’ve discovered that many people seem to be under the mistaken impression that the song is called “England Arise!” I’m not sure how this started—presumably because those are the opening words of the song—but “England Arise!” is a socialist protest song written by Edward Carpenter in the late 19th century. I mention it, because this error seems to be widespread online, and frankly, Jed Bartlet would be appalled at the confusion. Of course, Bartlet also likely would’ve known that he was watching The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby.