Musical moments with U.S. presidents
President Obama’s quick duet with B.B. King on the blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago,” which took place Tuesday during a White House concert celebrating the blues, gave the nation another sample of his vocal chops. It also put Pop & Hiss in mind of previous examples of chief executives who have flexed their musical muscle while in office. Here are some highlights:
Barack Obama: The president also crooned the opening line from Al Green’s 1971 hit “Let’s Stay Together” during at a fundraiser last month at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, demonstrating his glassy tenor before an audience that included the Rev. Al himself. He shook his finger at advisors offstage and told the crowd, “Those guys didn’t think I would do it.”
George W. Bush: Obama’s predecessor was famous for playing his iPod. After his personal playlist -- which had been selected by his personal aide, Blake Gottesman -- went public in 2005, it revealed Bush’s predilection for the music of George Jones, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and the Knack. “No one should psychoanalyze the song selection,” Bush advisor Mark McKinnon said at the time, because he said the president mostly plugged into what was dubbed “iPod One” riding his bike around his Texas ranch. “It’s music to get over the next hill.”
Bill Clinton: Clinton picked up the tenor sax he’d played through high school and college on a number of occasions during his two terms in office, and as a candidate in 1992 on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where he riffs on the Billie Holiday classic “God Bless the Child.”
Richard Nixon: Nixon visited the Grand Ole Opry for the dedication ceremony after the long-running live and radio show moved from its venerated home at the Ryman Auditorium to a new facility at the Opryland USA theme park. He took a seat at a piano and played “Happy Birthday” for his wife, Pat Nixon, then played “My Wild Irish Rose” to acknowledge her Irish heritage, and closed the program by playing “God Bless America.”
In that ceremony, Nixon cited his appreciation for country music by noting that the White House during his administration had hosted performances by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Roy Acuff and Glen Campbell, among others. “Country music,” Nixon said, “has those combinations which are so essential to America's character at a time that America needs character, because today -- one serious note, let me tell you -- the peace of the world for generations, maybe centuries to come, will depend not just on America’s military might, which is the greatest in the world, or our wealth, which is the greatest in the world, but it is going to depend on our character, our belief in ourselves, our love of our country, our willingness to not only wear the flag but to stand up for the flag. And country music does that.”
As president, Nixon once accompanied singer Pearl Bailey when she sang in the East Room of the White House. Nixon also played the accordion.
Nixon was no longer vice president and not yet president when played he played a composition of his own on “The Jack Paar Show” during John F. Kennedy’s administration. To accompany Nixon on the show, Paar surprised him with an orchestra made up of “about 15 Democratic violinists.”
Harry S. Truman: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse,” Truman famously said, “or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” Truman often said that if he had learned to be proficient pianist, he never would have become president.
After playing for a group of Methodist women at a county fair in his home state of Missouri, he told them, “When I played this, Stalin signed the Potsdam Agreement.”
Truman also wrote a celebrated response to Washington Post music critic Paul Hume’s assessment of a singing performance by his daughter, Margaret, in 1950, in which Hume wrote “Miss Truman cannot sing very well.”
The president blasted back: “I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.’
“It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for, it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.
“Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
Warren G. Harding: The 29th president may well be the only chief executive who played the sousaphone. At the time Harding took office in 1921, it was still a relatively new arrival in the music world, having been created in the late 1890s on orders of the country’s great bandleader and composer of marching band music, John Philip Sousa. He wanted a tuba that would be easier to carry than existing models while retaining the concert tuba’s full rich tone. It’s unclear whether Harding ever oompahed in the Oval Office.
Chester A. Arthur: Arthur reportedly played the banjo, which at the time represented both a political and cultural statement. The instrument originated in Africa and was often featured in minstrel performances of the 19th century, but was commonly disparaged in “serious" music circles. When a sitting president played the banjo, it lent credence to musicians who were campaigning to get the banjo greater respect.
Ulysses S. Grant: Grant was known more for his drinking than his harmonizing, and once said that he knew only two songs: “One is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.”
Thomas Jefferson: The primary author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the creators of the Constitution of the United States was an avid violinist who played chamber music while studying at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Music, he said, was “an enjoyment, the deprivation of which cannot be calculated.”
Jefferson left behind an extensive music library of books and sheet music by Haydn, Handel, J.C. Bach, Corelli, Purcell and many others. It is housed at the University of Virginia.
“Music is invaluable where a person has an ear,” Jefferson wrote late in life. “It furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: President Obama with blues musician B.B. King on Tuesday at the White House. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press