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It’s Presidents’ Day! And while there are a multitude of ways that we, as musicians, could be reflecting on politics, I think something we might all like right now is some lighter fare. So let’s take a look at a few historical presidencies with unexpected musical connections.
For obvious reasons, U.S. presidents are generally better known for their policy accomplishments, and sometimes their personality traits, than for playing musical instruments. Well… unless they’re The Presidents of the United States of America.
However, there have been a surprising number of Commanders in Chief who have been musically inclined. John Quincy Adams (president from 1825-1829) played the flute, Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) played the banjo, John Tyler (1841-1845) and Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) both played the violin, and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) and Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) both played the harmonica!
And we definitely can’t rule out Barack Obama’s (2009-2017) soulful singing abilities, he sang so many times into White House microphones, he could’ve been nominated for a Grammy.
Of course, Bill Clinton (1993-2001) is the most obvious example from recent memory. He even had a dedicated music room in the White House so he could jam out whenever he felt like it. But since we’ve already covered Clinton’s jazz saxophone history pretty darn extensively in a previous Flypaper piece, we’ll humbly leave him out of the following list. (But you should totally read that article.)
So here are just a few of our favorite presidents whose musical abilities have dazzled the citizenry.
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and his subsequent resignation from the presidency, have all contributed the overshadowing of Nixon’s identity as an otherwise very interesting man. He was legitimately talented — below is that proof. Nixon was a classically trained pianist, and he had, in fact, been known to compose his own music. In this rare clip, he performs his piece on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show, with an orchestra accompanying him.
Beyond the piano, Nixon also played the accordion, violin, clarinet, and saxophone! If you’re curious to see more, here’s another clip of Nixon, at the height of the Watergate scandal, accompanying singer Pearl Bailey in an impromptu performance.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
America’s third President, author of the Declaration of Independence, and all-around thoughtful idealist, Thomas Jefferson was also a musician. And he was hardly a casual player — he is said to have practiced violin for three hours every day as a child, and he owned several of them.
He was even able to woo his future wife away from other suitors using his musical abilities. Jefferson family legend holds that it was his virtuosic playing that successfully lured his wife Martha Skelton away from a bevy of potential suitors. The Wall Street Journal reported:
“Two of Jefferson’s amatory rivals encountered one another on Mrs. Skelton’s doorstep. While waiting to be received by her, they heard her singing a touching song to her own harpsichord accompaniment in an adjoining room. Then they heard a gentleman sing with her and play a violin obbligato. Knowing that Jefferson was the only violinist in the neighborhood, one suitor said to the other, “We are wasting our time,” and they quietly left in defeat. Jefferson married Skelton on new year’s day, 1772.”
How’s that for campaigning! He also advocated hard for a more widespread American pursuit of musical practice and education, helping to bring music deeper into American culture.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
The list of U.S. presidents who have released albums is fairly short, basically nonexistent, but good old Ike is on that list. The father of America’s interstate highway system released an album in 1956 called The President’s Favorite Music: Dwight D. Eisenhower. The album, a compilation of pieces ranging from Bach and Strauss to Gershwin, helped the American public see both classical music, and their president, as things that could be considered “fun” — not necessarily only stuffy and serious.
The back cover note, written by Eisenhower himself (supposedly), reads:
“I wish to salute musicians and the important part they play in the life of our people. American music has brought us pleasurable distinction at home and abroad.
Millions of Americans are engaged in the creation, performance and active appreciation of music. Indeed it is a rare day when any one of us does not hear some form of music; it is hard to imagine our lives without it.
The enjoyment of music — speaking for myself, at least — has a moral and spiritual value which is unique and powerful. It reaches easily across lingual, racial and national boundaries. The development of American music, like the native development of any art, is therefore the development of a national treasure.”
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
By most accounts, Harding was not the best president. His tenure was marked by corruption scandals and cronyism — he presided over the Teapot Dome scandal, and in recent years it’s been proven that he fathered his mistress’ child. His term is considered one of the country’s worst. He was, however, quite the musician. Harding is said to have played every instrument with the exception of the slide trombone and E♭ clarinet. He even played tuba in the band that was there to celebrate his nomination as a presidential candidate!
Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
Truman, who famously ended World War II, was also a passionate musician. According to historians, as a child, he got up at 5 every morning and practiced piano for two hours. Although he quit lessons at the age of fifteen, he never gave up his love for music. He tickled the ivories while he was the vice president in the famous picture above with Lauren Bacall, and is reported to have never walked by a piano without playing it. Here is a clip of him playing piano in 1952.
There is no doubt that the White House will become the home of many more musician presidents in the future — it’s basically inevitable. But with the disconcerting trend of celebrity interest in political office, we can only hope that future presidential candidates will have policy on their mind first and foremost!
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