Music and the American Presidency: A Virtual Fireside Chat with U.S. Presidents

GEORGE WASHINGTON: I can neither sing…nor raise a single note on any instrument to convince the unbelieving.(1)

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: …singing should come before speaking.(2)

HERBERT HOOVER: I cannot dance because of both my faith and my ignorance.(3)

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: I am extremely fond of music…and by dint of great pains have learnt to blow very badly the flute — but could never learn to perform upon the violin, because I could never could acquire the art of putting the instrument in tune.(4)

WARREN HARDING: [I] played every instrument but the slide trombone and the e-flat clarinet.(5)

HARRY S TRUMAN: We had a piano, and I wanted to learn how to play it. So I took a great many lessons on it and finally wound up with one of the great instructors in Kansas City… I took two lessons a week and got up every morning and practiced for two hours.(6)

RICHARD M. NIXON: As a child I spent hours at the piano picking out tunes… During my high school years, I played the piano for various church services each week… Although only a freshman at Whittier College, I was elected the first President of the Orthogonians, and I wrote our constitution and our song.(7)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: The true amateur of music is perhaps even more important to a national esthetic life than the professional.(8)

HARRY S TRUMAN: I decided that playing the piano wasn’t the thing for a man to do. It was a sissy thing to do. So I just stopped. And it was probably all for the best, I wouldn’t ever have been really first-rate. A good music-hall piano player is about the best I’d have ever been. So I went into politics and became President of the United States.(9)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: We must pursue music for the love of it, not merely because it offers a tempting field for commercial advantage.(10)

BILL CLINTON: All my musical competitions were great because it was so competitive, but, in a way, you were fighting vs. yourself. And music, to me, was-is-kind of representative of everything I like most in life. It’s beautiful and fun but very rigorous. If you wanted to be good, you had to work like crazy. And it was a real relationship btw effort & reward. My musical life experiences were just as important to me, in terms of forming my development, as my political experiences or my academic life.(11)

RUTHERFORD B. HAYES: [I have]…no musical taste or cultivation myself…(12)

JIMMY CARTER: I’m musically afflicted. I’m not a good singer. On a few occasions I’ve been on the platform with Willie Nelson and he invites me up to sing “Amazing Grace” with him as a finale, but he always turns the microphone away from me so people can’t hear. So I’m not a good singer. I like to sing, though.(13)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: It is a mistake to think that the appreciation of music is limited to those who can take an active part in performance.(14)

RONALD REAGAN: Once when I was a drum major leading my high school band in a parade, I was aware that the music was growing fainter and fainter behind me. Soon I knew they had gone one way and I another-and I had just marched out of my musical career.(15)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: We need good listeners even more than we need good performers.(16)

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: …I had become an organ player… I drummed the organ for all I was worth and drowned out the singers. I had to pump, play and use the swells all at the same time.(17)

BILL CLINTON: When I was a boy growing up, my greatest aspiration was to come to Rhode Island and play in the Newport Jazz Festival.(18)

HARRY S TRUMAN: I guess it’s too late to take it up now, playing the piano, although maybe I could become sort of the Grandma Moses of the Ex-Presidents.(19)

RICHARD M. NIXON: I have always had two great-and still unfulfilled-ambitions: to direct a symphony orchestra and to play an organ in a cathedral.(20)

CHESTER A. ARTHUR: I may be President of the United States, but my private life’s nobody’s damned business.(21)

[Ed. Note: It’s a shame that Mr. Arthur would not comment here as reports claim “President Arthur is no mean banjo player and can make the banjo do some lively humming when so disposed.”(22)]



(1) From George Washington’s Feb 5, 1789 letter to Francis Hopkinson; collected in The Writings of George Washington edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1944) 30: 196-97; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 14.

(2) From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s October 18, 1899 Letter to his mother collected in FDR: His Personal Letters, Early Years edited by Elliott Roosevelt (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947), p. 347; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p.223.

(3) From a Herbert Hoover quote in a news story published in The World, October 1, 1928; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 206.

(4) From Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (New York, 1874) I: 98-99; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 42.

(5) From a Warren Harding quote in “Our Musical Presidents” by Doron K. Antrim, Etude, May 1940, p.337.

(6) From a comment by Harry S Truman in Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller (New York: Berkley Publishing Co. distributed by Putnam, 1972), pp. 85-86.

(7) From The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978); cited in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 318.

(8) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 24.

(9) From a comment by Harry S Truman in Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller (New York: Berkley Publishing Co. distributed by Putnam, 1972), p. 87.

(10) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 24.

(11) From Clinton on Clinton, A Portrait of the President in His Own Words edited by Wayne Meyer (New York: Avon, 1999) p. 15.

(12) From Rutherford B. Hayes’ January 24, 1886 Letter to Lucy Hayes in the Rutherford Hayes Presidential Papers; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 89.

(13) From Jimmy Carter’s conversation with Robert Fulghum at the time of the release of Carter’s book, Living Faith, originally broadcast on the C SPAN-2 program, Booknotes on December 19, 1996. Transcript of the conversation printed in Conversations with Carter, edited by Don Richardson (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publications, 1998), p. 324.

(14) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 24.

(15) From a comment by Ronald Reagan after his Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1984; cited in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 347.

(16) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 24.

(17) From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s October 18, 1899 Letter to his mother collected in FDR: His Personal Letters, Early Years edited by Elliott Roosevelt (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947), p. 347; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 223.

(18) From a Bill Clinton quote that appeared in Paul Bedard’s December 14, 1998 Column: “Washington Whispers: Energy from New York,” U.S. News and World Report.

(19) From a comment by Harry S Truman in Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller (New York: Berkley Publishing Co. distributed by Putnam, 1972), p. 87.

(20) From The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster), p. 9; also reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p.318.

(21) From a Chester A. Arthur quote in Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves (New York: Knopf, 1975), p. 275.

(22) Ed. Note refers to a comment made in the Washington Weekly Star, April 14, 1882; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 136.

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