Executive Entertainers: America's Most Musical Presidents
Big-money supporters were treated to the first indelible moment in Barack Obama's reelection campaign last Thursday when the President crooned the opening lyric from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" from the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was just the sort of off-the-cuff instance that can humanize a President, turning a living symbol -- however briefly -- back into a regular guy capable of appreciating a classic soul jam.
Obama's falsetto declaration of love wasn't the first time a sitting President has used music to connect to his constituency. America has always been steeped in music both refined and rough, and even the powdered wig set that birthed our nation played and enjoyed everything from Haydn to "Yankee Doodle." In honor of Obama's tribute to "The Rev," Rocks Off has put together the following list of Presidential musicians and their instruments of choice.
Ah, Bill Clinton -- the Rock 'n Roll President. In 1992, Clinton the candidate cemented his rep as a pop music personality when he showed up on The Arsenio Hall Show with his saxophone and his shades, blasting out a pleasantly surprising version of "Heartbreak Hotel." It was a star-making turn that helped Clinton capture the youth vote and make the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, seem like the oldest man alive. "It's nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election," Arsenio quipped. Blowing would continue to figure somewhat prominently in Clinton's political career.
Given his status as one of American history's most revered Renaissance men, it's no surprise that Thomas Jefferson liked to play a few tunes when he wasn't writing the Declaration of Independence or inventing the dumbwaiter. Jefferson played the cello and a baroque keyboard called the clavichord, but his main ax was the violin. For our third President, music was "an enjoyment, the deprivation of which...cannot be calculated." It even played a big role in the courtship of his wife, Martha, who played guitar and keys. Today, Jefferson's extensive music library is housed at the University of Virginia.
"My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician," President Harry S. Truman once said. "And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference." Several hundred thousand Japanese might have begged to differ with that sentiment, but Truman's great affinity for the piano was undeniable. Give-'Em-Hell Harry treated the nation to his talents on a 1938 Steinway during a televised tour of the White House in 1952, but he also played for more exclusive audiences. Truman tickled the ivories for Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, which we can assume went over well enough to help usher in four decades of Cold War.
During the darkest days of World War I, Woodrow Wilson once said, "Music now more than ever before is a national need." For Wilson, that need was fulfilled by the violin. The President grew up playing it and continued to fiddle around into young adulthood. No records exist of the President playing (on YouTube, anyway), so there's no telling how good he was. Even if he was no Paganini, though, he did get into Princeton, which is the only reason kids are forced to learn the violin, anyway.