I’ll tell you why I like “Roosevelt”

“Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt” is a gospel-soaked/proto-soul a cappella dirge released in April 1946 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. It’s like no other requiem ever written, bursting with ferocity and wrath and pride and even tentative hope. Musically mating the sacred and the secular has been done before, of course, but in this case it was a universal loss – the loss of a public figure who was simultaneously sacred and secular to millions – that elevated “Tell Me Why” beyond the confines of the church, and gospel. The song is a masterwork, one of those blessed crossroads where the right people and the proper occasion, however wrenching, came together. 

Photographer Ed Clark’s CPO Graham Jackson Mourning the Death of Franklin Roosevelt

The music was based on a spiritual. Chicago vocalist/lyricist Otis Jackson wrote the electrifying words and recorded the original version of the song with the Evangelist Singers (Oliver Green, Leroy Baines and Bob Thomas). The recording was too long for a single side, so it’s often referred to as “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt (Part I)” and “(Part II).” Some versions substitute the title “Weren’t No Kin,” which is the difficult-to-understand “response” (in parentheses, below) to Jackson’s “call” every time Jackson sings “Tell me why you like Roosevelt.” 

Tell me why you like Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)

The significance of “weren’t no kin” is that Roosevelt took the side of the blacks (and the poor) even though there was no blood relationship. 

The song has been covered numerous times since — by the Soul-Stirrers, Blind Connie Williams and McKinley Peebles, among others — but most notably by anti-establishment folk-rocker Jesse Winchester in 1974. To his credit, the Anglo artist’s traditionalist take wasn’t a blatant lift. He altered the music and most of the lyrics to reflect his own time and place. 

Humorously, Otis Jackson once covered himself, recording a different version of “Tell Me Why” in 1949 with an ensemble called the National Clouds of Joy. 

There are no uninteresting parts to this song, but one of the oddest – and most touching – involves the renowned portrait painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who was working on a painting of FDR when he died. As Jackson told it:

Elizabeth Shoumatoff she grabbed the brush

She dipped it in water and began to paint

Looked at the president and began to faint

She never painted a picture for him at night

Knew that the president didn’t look right

The time of day it was twelve o’clock

Tell me that Elizabeth had to stop

Great God almighty she started too late

That’s why they call this that unfinished portrait

A more representative lyric from “Tell Me Why” – regarding FDR’s concern, and former president Herbert Hoover’s disdain, for the downtrodden – went like this:

Well, Hoover’s administration Congress assembled

All of the poor folk began to tremble

The rich would ride in the automobile

Depression made poor people rob and steal

Well, look next door at our beloved neighbor

Wasn’t getting anything for their hard labor

But great God almighty they were moonshine stilling

Brought about a crime wave, robbing and killing

After Hoover made the poor man moan

Roosevelt stepped in, gave us a comfortable home

“Can you imagine a song like this today?” asks theologian/blogger A.K.M. Adam on his Web site AKMA’s Random Thoughts. “[There is a] staggering avalanche of specificity with which the song recounts Roosevelt’s actions on behalf of African-Americans and the poor. 

“I don’t subscribe to idealizations of any moment in U.S. history, but ‘Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt’ burnishes FDR’s standing in my imagination, and impresses me as a popular memorial to that poor man’s friend. Has anyone been tempted to write ‘George W. Bush, The Poor Man’s Friend’ or ‘Ronald Reagan, The Poor Man’s Friend’ or even ‘Bill Clinton, The Poor Man’s Friend’?”

If you’re not partial to any of the above fearless leaders, check out the clear winner for Poor Man’s Friend, as well as my favorite line from the song:

Call on Jesus, he’s a president too.🔳

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