LISTEN: Correspondent Don Gonyea's Campaign Homestretch Playlist

Oct 16, 2016
Originally published on October 16, 2016 11:14 am

Every reporter has their habits and rituals while on the campaign trail chasing candidates and stories.

One of mine — and I've been doing it for years — is to build a short playlist of songs to listen to in my rental car that somehow relate to the place I'm in. I made one last year as I crisscrossed Iowa and earlier this year for New Hampshire's primary.

Now that we're in the final weeks of this election, NPR's Weekend Edition asked what I'm listening to while on the road now.

Call this my "2016 Homestretch Playlist." And because we're no longer hopping from primary state to primary state, these days I include songs to mark some big battleground states, as well as tunes that speak more broadly to the themes of democracy and American elections.

Here we go:

1. "Vote for Mr. Rhythm" / Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra

There are few things more joyful than the voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing in front of a swinging big band.

This is from the earliest years of her remarkable career and you can hear the youth in her powerful voice.

This song came out in an election year (1936), and I love it when she says:

And vote for Mr. Rhythm
I'm voting twice!

2. "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" / The Temptations

One of the great Temptations' Motown classics, a big hit that came out a year and a half after the 1968 presidential election, which was one of the most divisive the country had ever seen. The song spoke to the tensions of the day. It resonates in the current political climate when racial tensions have become an issue in the campaign, and when deep divisions separate the body politic.

3. "My House" / Flo Rida

A popular hip-hop song for the ride across battleground state Florida. Flo Rida is a south Florida native. From 2015, it's the most contemporary song on the list, and the artist and sound speak to the changing nature of the Sunshine State, which is younger and more diverse than ever — a fact that is changing the state's politics as well.

4. "Whip It" / Devo

Devo makes the list because its members hail from the city of Akron, located in the all-important battleground state of Ohio. No deep meaning here. Just a fun song for the road. A good one to sing along to. And even a little playful nonsense from the guys who performed in hazmat suits and made bizarre music videos over the course of their career.

5. "Debate Highlights Songified" / The Gregory Brothers

Even with the presence of Devo, this is the weirdest song on this list. The Gregory Brothers — consisting of three brothers and one of their wives — have taken the presidential debates, auto-tuned the voices of the candidates, and turned them into wonky, policy-oriented duets. This one features the duo of President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney — both baritones, I believe — squaring off in debate during the 2012 campaign.

6. "Democracy" / Leonard Cohen

Cohen is one of our greatest songwriters. The Montreal-born singer and poet has written such classics as "Hallelujah," "Bird on the Wire" and "Suzanne."

Now 82 years old and featured in a terrific New Yorker profile, he's stopped touring but he's still writing and recording — and making us ponder big questions. This is his 1992 song that pays tribute to American democracy. It manages to be both dark and optimistic at the same time.

It's coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

7. "I Will Survive" / Gloria Gaynor

Disco! OK, I'm not a big fan of the genre, perhaps because I was in college when Saturday Night Fever came out and those songs drowned out just about everything else in the dorm and at parties. But I consulted with some colleagues on the NPR Elections Desk, and we decided this 1978 hit is the perfect song to power us through the final weeks of the campaign.

I will survive, indeed. How many days till election day?

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I bumped into Don Gonyea, our national political correspondent, in the NPR cafeteria the other day, which is not something I get the chance to do very often because for most of this past year Don has been on the road, out chatting with voters and reporting from the campaign trail. But when I did bump into him, Don reminded me that while he's logging all those miles, he comes up with election playlists, songs with some connection to the place he's visiting. And Don is with us now to give us a preview of his latest. Don, I'm going to christen this the homestretch playlist.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: That works for me. Thanks for having me, too.

KELLY: (Laughter) You've been looking forward to having the homestretch in your sights I'm guessing.

GONYEA: (Laughter) Yes, yes.

KELLY: So I have to start by asking you - we just said you logged a lot of miles. How many rental cars do you think you've been in this year?

GONYEA: If there is a nondescript, four-door, silver sedan in a rental car lot in America, I have driven it this year.

KELLY: You've driven it.


KELLY: All right. So lay it on me. What is the first track on the homestretch?

GONYEA: OK. Again, the key is to make me feel good. And I always like to start with something uptempo. And for this homestretch playlist, I start with the great Ella - there's only one Ella - Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb band singing "Vote For Mr. Rhythm."


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Vote for Mr. Rhythm. Raise up your voice, and vote for Mr. Rhythm, the people's choice.

GONYEA: She sings at one point you'll be happy with 'im (ph). Take my advice. Vote for Mr. Rhythm. I'm voting twice.

KELLY: So that's number one, all right. Track two - where are we going next?

GONYEA: Kind of a different mood and a song from my youth growing up in Detroit, and I think it sums up this political year in ways that it hadn't even attended (ph) - The Temptations, "Ball Of Confusion."


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation. Ball of confusion, that's the world is today.

KELLY: Now, we mentioned that you picked songs to try to give some sort of sense of location of the spot that you're showing up in to report on. So where do you have your sights on for these last three weeks and counting?

GONYEA: I'm focused on the battleground states. Two of the big ones that I'm sure I will be going to are Ohio and Florida. So there are these guys from Athens, Ohio, who had a band in the late '70s and '80s called Devo. Does everybody know Devo?

KELLY: (Laughter) Oh, yeah.

GONYEA: They wore their hazmat suits and they wore those hats that looked like upside down plastic flower pots.

KELLY: And they whipped it.

GONYEA: And they whipped it. And I just - I just love that song. And since I find myself in that rental car passing through Akron, Ohio, I always think of Devo when I do. And that's why they're on the list.


DEVO: (Singing) You must whip it. Now whip it into shape. Shape it up. Get straight. Go forward.

KELLY: Now, we mentioned you've been making these playlists all through the campaign season. You came on the show and told us about your playlist for Iowa, your playlist for New Hampshire. And we should mention one more milestone to get through is the last presidential debate, which is coming up on Wednesday night. Is there a song that speaks to you with the debate in sight?

GONYEA: You can find anything on these music services (laughter) online, and there is this group called The Gregory Brothers. They're from Virginia, which kind of happens to be a battleground state. And they took the 2012 debates, edited them down and autotuned them. So we have Barack Obama, the president, we have the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney and they are singing the debate back and forth to one another. And it's just kind of stupid and kind of fun.


MITT ROMNEY: As president, I will sit down, day one, sit down with leaders for a couple hours, talk about the issues, talk about challenges.

PRES BARACK OBAMA: Part of being a leader is not just saying I'll sit down.

GONYEA: We knew Obama could sing. He sings Motown on the stump, right? But who knew Mitt Romney could sing? (Laughter) So there you have it.

KELLY: There you have it. OK, after a year on the road, I have to ask, are you already plotting what you will play that glorious morning that will dawn November 9, Wednesday, the day after the election?

GONYEA: I polled my fellow reporters and correspondents on the NPR election desk, and it's not that this is any of our favorite song, but we think it is going to be the perfect song to play to both kind of get us through and to carry us right on to November 8. And I'm not going to introduce it. We're just going to hear the chorus.


GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) Do you think I'd crumble? Did you think I'd lay down and die? Oh, no, not I. I will survive.

KELLY: Well, that seems like a good place to end it. NPR's road warrior and political correspondent Don Gonyea, thank you very much.

GONYEA: All right, as always, Play it loud.

KELLY: We will play it loud, and you can check out his whole playlist. We've got it up. It's at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.