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The Musical Presidents

I discovered a wonderful article by David Guion that ranks the top ten most musical presidents. The author lists Franklin Delano Roosevelt as number 10 for his supposed ability to play the organ, but Guion admits that he could not find any reliable authority for the proposition that FDR had such a talent. So let's make this a top 9 list instead:

Number 9: Chester Alan Arthur

According to Guion, Arthur played the banjo and is probably the only banjo-playing President. He even posed next to one for a photographer.



Number 6, 7, and 8: John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson

The author says that these three Presidents are tied. Adams played flute, while Tyler and Wilson played violin.

Number 5: Harry S. Truman

Truman played piano throughout his presidency and beyond. His performances were captured on film and are available on YouTube. His daughter Margaret had aspirations of becoming an opera singer. Truman’s rage against a critic who panned her performance is a legendary anecdote.

Number 4: Bill Clinton

Clinton played saxophone well enough to win first chair in his all-state band and consider music as a career. He continued to practice saxophone daily, and 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 colorful tie. He passed President George H. W. Bush in the polls for the first time shortly afterward.

Number 3: 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: Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson, like Nixon, played three instruments: violin, cello, and clavichord. He practiced three hours a day in his college years. The royal governor of Virginia regularly invited Jefferson to play chamber music at his home. 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 they traveled to Philadelphia and Paris to find teachers for her. Jefferson was an avid book collector and later sold his personal library to 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.

Number 1: Warren G. Harding

Harding played more instruments than any other president. He once remarked, “I played every instrument but the slide trombone and the E-flat cornet.” He played well enough to join the band that celebrated his nomination in 1920.



The author comments that three of the four most musical Presidents are remembered for the scandals that marred their administrations, though that's probably just a coincidence.

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
seaivy
May. 21st, 2012 12:24 pm (UTC)
Ah musicians - they lead a bohemian life - even if they are POTUS
Thanks for this
kensmind
May. 21st, 2012 03:46 pm (UTC)
I stumbled across this by accident and thought it was worth sharing. Presidential biographies rarely if ever mention a president's musical ability, other than ones like Truman, Nixon and Clinton. I had no clue that Harding played the tuba!
seaivy
May. 21st, 2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
Did he really play it or just pose with it? It's a very effective photo op.
kensmind
May. 21st, 2012 06:43 pm (UTC)
Apparently he jammed with the band, so either he knew how to play or he faked it well.
direcorrector
May. 21st, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
OK love the Harding bit. :) Harding has been full of all SORTS of fun surprises.

As a piano player....I found Nixon's piano playing rather disturbing. The way, like with everything else he did, he played with his shoulders up to his ears. I wish there was more footage of Truman on the piano, that was more of a natural fit.
kensmind
May. 22nd, 2012 12:52 am (UTC)
I never noticed that, but now that you've pointed it out, I'll have to watch the piano playing styles of both to catch that.

Reading the original article, I realized (and this is no criticism) that the author is a musician not a historian. I was wondering if, being familiar with both worlds, you were aware of any Presidents with musical talents that he may have missed?
direcorrector
May. 25th, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
One I just found out about today is that Wilson had a lovely tenor voice! http://bibliolore.org/2012/05/25/woodrow-wilson-lyric-tenor/
kensmind
May. 25th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
That was a wondeful article, thanks for the link!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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