The current presidential election has already outstayed its welcome well before the primaries are even over. Perhaps I can offer some musical diversion. President Obama has broken into song on a couple of recent occasions, and Billboard ran a list of five other Presidents with varying levels of musical accomplishment. Some references to it say that Billboard put Obama at the top of the list. The list is in reverse chronological order, with the very musical but very early President Thomas Jefferson at the bottom. Still, at worst Obama fared better with his foray into music than Jimmy Carter did. Carter received only snickers for his “shaky vocal” on “Salt Peanuts.” Who are the most and least musical of American Presidents?
Ulysses S. Grant certainly scrapes the bottom of the list. He was tone deaf and famously commented, “I only know two tunes. One of them is Yankee Doodle and the other isn’t.” I haven’t located any musical references at all for most Presidents beyond occasional mentions of listening habits and taste. Some, however, played at least one musical instrument. Here are the top 10 musical presidents, ranked in order of how many instruments they played.
Number 10 Musical President Franklin D. Roosevelt
I confess to doing all of the research for this post on the Internet. A couple of things I read about Presidents in general asserted that Roosevelt played organ. When I investigated further, I could not find any mention of that talent in any article or list of facts specifically about Roosevelt. Let’s give him an honorable mention.
Number 9 Musical President Chester A. Arthur
A couple of general sites say that Arthur apparently played banjo. One of them claimed that he was our only banjo-playing President. I don’t know if he played it or not. But at least I have proof that he posed next to one for a photographer. Hmm. Why would he pose with a banjo if he couldn’t play it?
Number 6, 7, and 8 Musical Presidents John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson
These three Presidents are kind of tied. Adams played flute. Tyler and Wilson played violin. I can’t say how dedicated they were to music, how well they played, or whether they continued to play while they were President. I expect Adams rates higher than the other two. Perhaps I’ll look into it some time later. If I find anything especially interesting, I’ll let you know.
Number 5 Musical President Harry Truman
Truman played piano throughout his presidency and beyond. He is the earliest of our musical Presidents whose performances were captured on film and are therefore available on YouTube. His daughter Margaret had aspirations of becoming an opera singer. Truman’s rage against a critic who panned her performance is legendary.
Number 4 Musical President Bill Clinton
Clinton played saxophone well enough to win first chair in his all-state band and consider music as a career. By sixteen, however, he had set his sites on elective office. He continued to practice saxophone daily. As a Presidential candidate in 1992, he appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show and played “Heartbreak Hotel” with the show’s band, wearing wraparound sunglasses and a much more colorful tie than most politicians of the time. That performance appears to have been a turning point in the campaign. He passed incumbent President George H. W. Bush in the polls for the first time shortly afterward. Political analysts point to a number of reasons why that was no coincidence.
Number 3 Musical President Richard Nixon
Besides being an accomplished pianist, Nixon played accordion and violin. Not only did he play three instruments, he is the first American President who composed any music that came to public attention. The following clip from the Jack Paar Show features Nixon performing a short piece he composed, accompanied by an ensemble of “Democratic violinists.”
Number 2 Musical President Thomas Jefferson
I had a real hard time deciding which order to put Nixon and Jefferson. Jefferson, like Nixon, played three instruments: violin, cello, and clavichord. If he ever composed any music, it has not come to the attention of scholars or the sort of people who post interesting trivia to the Internet. I give Jefferson top billing because of the depth of his musical involvement.
He practiced three hours a day in his college years. The music-loving royal governor regularly invited Jefferson to play chamber music at his palace. In those days, people played chamber music for personal recreation, not for an audience. So Jefferson played along with other fine musicians for the pleasure of making music with them and also enjoyed what he later called “more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversation than in all my life besides.”
Music also played an important role in Jefferson’s courtship with Martha Wayles Skelton. She played piano, an instrument Jefferson had apparently not encountered before. He ordered a solid mahogany piano for her. After they married, he made sure his children became proficient musicians as well. His daughter Martha became so proficient on harpsichord that the traveled to Philadelphia and Paris to find teachers.
Jefferson, as is well known, collected books avidly and later donated his personal library to start the Library of Congress. In 1783, he compiled a catalog of his music collection. There was chamber music for strings and harpsichord (especially that of his favorite composer Arcangelo Corelli), song collections, ballad operas, and orchestral music. He also acquired instruction books for violin, harpsichord, flute, and “musical glasses,” as well as books on music history and theory.
And the Number 1 Most Musical President . . . Warren G. Harding!
Harding easily played more instruments than any other president. He once remarked, “I played every instrument but the slide trombone and the E-flat cornet.” How well did he play any of them? Apparently well enough to join the band that celebrated his nomination in 1920.
I notice something interesting: by the standard I used, three of the four most musical Presidents will forever be remembered for the scandals that marred their administrations. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Their only rival in being remembered for scandal was the utterly unmusical Grant.
Oh, besides the high-school chorister Clinton, did any Presidents have any kind of formal vocal music in their background? Please comment if you know and can provide an authoritative link.