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

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: There is something very curious in the reproductions here on this new continent of essentially the conditions of ballad-growth which was obtained in mediaeval England(1)

JIMMY CARTER: …If there ever was an indigenous art form, one that is peculiar to the United States and represents what we are as a country, I would say it is jazz.(2)

GEORGE BUSH: Country music is honest, good-natured music played with style and spirit. Like a favorite pair of faded blue jeans, it fits the way we live. Never out of fashion, always comfortable, country music has millions of fans in cities and towns across the United States — people of all ages and all walks of life. And whether they tap their toes to the lively sound of bluegrass and honky-tonk or hum along with the rhythm and blues, country music lovers share an appreciation of the simple and most important things in life: faith, family, and friendship. Of course, while country music speaks from the heart of the American people, it has-like liberty itself-a great and universal appeal. Indeed, millions of people around the world can be counted among its fans. Maybe that is because country music crosses the barriers of culture and language, capturing all the joys, struggles, laughter, and heartache that are part of our daily lives. In any case, the growing popularity of country music is a tribute to generations of American composers, lyricists, singers, and musicians.(3)

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: Under modern conditions… the native ballad is speedily killed by competition with the music hall songs; the cowboy becoming ashamed to sing the crude homespun ballads in view of what Owen Wister calls the “ill-smelling saloon cleverness” of the far less interesting composition of the music hall singers.(4)

JIMMY CARTER: Gospel music is really rural music. It has both black and white derivations; it’s not a racial kind of music… it’s a music of pain, a music of longing, and a music of faith.(5)

THOMAS JEFFERSON: In music they [the blacks] are more generally gifted than the whites, with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch… The instrument proper to them is the Banjar which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar… Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.(6)

JIMMY CARTER: …when I became governor, I was acquainted with some of the people at Capricorn Records in MaconOtis Redding and others. It was they who began to meld the white and black music industries, and that was quite a sociological change for our region.(7)

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: I don’t know anything about Indian music, but the translation of Indian song poems shows them to be of rare value…(8)



(1) From a handwritten note by Theodore Roosevelt to John A. Lomax dated August 28, 1910 in a Library of Congress copy of Lomax’s book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (New York” Sturgis and Walton, 1916), vii-viii; 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. 170.

(2) From a Jimmy Carter quote in “Carter Opens Home to Jazz as an Art” by John Wilson, The New York Times, June 19, 1978; 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. 343.

(3) From Presidential Proclamation 6358: Country Music Month, 1991 on October 15, 1991; archived on the Bush Library Web site.

(4) From a handwritten note by Theodore Roosevelt to John A. Lomax dated August 28, 1910 in a Library of Congress copy of Lomax’s book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (New York” Sturgis and Walton, 1916), vii-viii; 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. 170.

(5) From Jimmy Carter’s Remarks at a White House Performance on September 9, 1979, collected in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter (Washington: Government Office, 1979-80), 2:1614-15; 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. 344.

(6) From Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia; combined from citations 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. 53 and America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present by Gilbert Chase (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 60.

(7) From Robert Scheer‘s Interview with Jimmy Carter published in Playboy Magazine, November 1976. Reprinted in Conversations with Carter, edited by Don Richardson (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publications, 1998), p. 50.

(8) From a Theodore Roosevelt quote in “The Part Music Has Played in the Lives of our Presidents” by Doron K. Antrim, Musical Observer 33 (October 1924); 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. 185.]