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

CALVIN COOLIDGE: As the people learned to use freedom by being free, so they will learn to appreciate good music by having good music.(1)

THOMAS JEFFERSON: The bounds of an American fortune will not admit the indulgence of a domestic band of musicians, yet I have thought that a passion for music might be reconciled with that economy which we are obliged to observe.(2)

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: I do not understand quite what you mean about my actions concerning the musicians’ union. Do you mean the enforcement of the immigration law against the importation of contract laborers? This was a mere question of ordinary obedience to law. Or do you mean the protest against Government bands out of office hours entering into competition with other bands? This, of course, is a case that stands by itself, and there is undoubtedly an argument from the labor side against permitting men who are paid by the Government, and who are therefore able to work for lower sums, to compete with men who are not so paid and who therefore cannot work for so little money — and the latter in addition, have to work against the prestige gained from the fact that one band is a Government band.(3)

THOMAS JEFFERSON: If there is a gratification which I envy any people of this world it is to…[Italy]… its music.(4)

BENJAMIN HARRISON: If you could forget Ireland, if you could be unmoved by her minstrelsy… I should fear that the bonds of your new citizenship would have no power over hearts so cold and consciences so dead.(5)

GERALD R. FORD: I must convey to the people of the Republic of Finland, on behalf of the 214 million people of the United States of America, a reaffirmation of the longstanding affection and admiration which all my countrymen hold for your brave and beautiful land. We are bound together by the most powerful of all ties, our fervent love for freedom and independence, which knows no homeland but the human heart. It is a sentiment as enduring as the granite rock on which this city stands and as moving as the music of Sibelius.(6)

DWIGHT EISENHOWER: The exchange of artists is one of the most effective ways of strengthening world friendship.(7)

HARRY S TRUMAN: It was my turn to feed ‘em at a formal dinner last night. Had Churchill on my right, Stalin on my left… Stalin was so friendly that he toasted the pianist when he played a Tskowsky (you spell it) piece especially for him. The old man loves music. He told me he’d import the greatest Russian pianist for me tomorrow. Our boy was good. His name is [Eugene] List and he played Chopin, Von Weber, Schubert, and all of them.(8)

LYNDON JOHNSON: Your art is not a political weapon. Yet much of what you do is profoundly political. For you seek out the common pleasures and visions, terrors and cruelties of man’s day on this planet. You help dissolve the barriers of hatred and ignorance which are the source of so much pain and danger. In this way you work toward peace-not the peace which is simply the absence of war-but the peace which liberates man to reach for the finest fulfillment of his spirit.(9)

WILLIAM McKINLEY: …the rule you are to bear is called military, yet it is not to be exerted for military purposes, but in the interest of order and peace and for the preservation and promotion of the rights of liberty and property and the protection of the people in the resumption of all the arts and avocations of peaceful life.(10)

GEORGE BUSH: Country music gives us a window on the real world. And when I want to feel a surge of patriotism or turn nostalgic or even when I need a little free advice about Saddam Hussein, I turn to country music.(11)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.(12)

HARRY S TRUMAN: Being the super-duper guest I pulled out at eleven o’clock after a lovely piano and violin concert by a dirty-faced quartet. The two men play the piano, the two women the violin. I never heard any better ones. Chopin, Tchaikowsky, Liszt; Hungarian Rhapsody, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish folk dances-it was real music. Since I’d had America’s No. 1 pianist to play for Uncle Joe at my dinner, he had to go me one better. I had one [pianist] and one violinist-and he had two of each…(13)

JAMES MONROE: Lately, a song called the “Reveil du Peuple,” composed in reproach of the reign of terror, had become very fashionable under that reign, and by some accidental circumstances was placed in a kind of rivalship or of rather opposition to the Marseillaise Hymn. The young men of Paris, the relations of many of whom had suffered under that reign of terror, formed a party who were in general in favor of the “Reveil du Peuple,” often calling for it at the theatre in preference to the Marseillaise Hymn, and which circumstance never failed to give uneasiness to many who were present.(14)

JIMMY CARTER: I think when you hear…the 1812 Overture, it will remind you of the kind of breakfast that I have with the congressional leaders every two weeks.(15)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: To heal the unrest and lack of understanding now in evidence in our land, we must bring into our national consciousness a peaceful presence that will dispel confusion as light dispels darkness and that peaceful presence can largely be music.(16)

JOHN ADAMS: [Gregorian chants are] exquisitely soft and sweet… The…music [is] so calculated to take in mankind that I wonder the Reformation ever succeeded.(17)



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

(2) From Thomas Jefferson’s June 8, 1778 Letter to Giovanni Fabbroni (1778)

(3) From Theodore Roosevelt’s August 27, 1904 Letter to Ray Stannard Baker; collected in the Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Volume IV: The Square Deal edited by Elting E. Morison (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), pp. 909-10.

(4) From Thomas Jefferson’s June 8, 1778 Letter to Giovanni Fabbroni (1778).

(5) From Benjamin Harrison’s September 15, 1888 address to the Friends of the Irish American Republican Club of Cook County IL in Indianapolis IN; reprinted in Speeches of Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States compiled by Charles Hedges (Port Washington NY: Kennikat Press, 1971 re-issued from 1892), p. 125.

(6) From President Gerald R. Ford’s Address in Helsinki Before the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, August 1, 1975; archived on the Web site of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum.

(7) From a Dwight D. Eisenhower quote 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. 277.

(8) From Harry S Truman’s July 20, 1945 Letter to Bess Truman; reprinted in Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959, edited by Robert H. Ferrell (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983).

(9) From a quote by Lyndon Johnson in the New York Herald Tribune, June 15, 1965; 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. 316.

(10) From President William McKinley’s Letter to Major General John R. Brooke (December 22, 1898); cited in American Statesmen: William McKinley by Charles S. Olcott (Boston and New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1916), p. 198.

(11) From George Bush’s remarks at the 25th Anniversary of the Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, October 3, 1991; archived on the Web site of the George Bush Presidential Library.

(12) From John F. Kennedy’s Address to Amherst College, October 26, 1963, cited in Public Papers of the Presidents: 1963, p. 817; archived on the Web site of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library.

(13) From Harry S Truman’s July 22, 1945 Letter to Bess Truman; reprinted in Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959, edited by Robert H. Ferrell (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983).

(14) From James Monroe’s August 1, 1795 Letter to Edmund Randolph; collected in Volume II of The Writings of James Monroe, including a Collection of his Public and Private Papers and Correspondences Now For The First Time Printed, edited by Stanislav Murray Hamilton (New York: AMS Press, 1969), pp. 336-37.

(15) From Jimmy Carter’s remarks at the Reception for Members of Congress and their Families in the White House Promenade, May 20, 1978, collected in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1979-80), 1: 944-45; 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. 346.

(16) From a quote in “Our Musical Presidents” by Doron K. Antrim, Etude, May 1940, p. 349.

(17) From an October 1774 John Adams Diary entry; cited in A History of Music in American Life: Volume I — The Formative Years 1620-1865 by Ronald L. Davis [Malabar FL: Robert Krieger Publishing Co., 1982), p. 26.]