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

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

The White House from above
An aerial view of the South side of the White House

Compiled by Frank J. Oteri and
Jenny Undercofler
Additional research by David Hughes

  1. The Role of Music in American Life
  2. Personal Attitudes About Music
  3. Great American Composers
  4. Other Favorite Presidential Musicians
  5. Music & Diplomacy: International & Domestic
  6. The Chief Executive as Music Critic
  7. Some Thoughts About Opera in America
  8. The President as Music Historian
  9. Some Important Musical Epiphanies
  10. Presidential Music Requests
  11. Presidents and Pianos
  12. Musical Ability and Aspirations
  13. Our Musical President

The ‘virtual fireside chat’, like its namesake developed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his Presidency, is an informal discussion designed to appeal to American citizens. Since it appears on NewMusicBox, it is a discussion about music. We call it a ‘virtual fireside chat’ because it crosses chronological lines going back more than 200 years, purporting to be a conversation between such musical opinion mongers as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S Truman, which of course could never have happened because they lived in different eras. In fact, all but 6 of the 42 men who have served as President of the United States are represented here in this compendium of quotes from archival interviews, books, letters, speeches and addresses spanning their entire careers, not just their brief years in the White House. If anyone knows of any comments related to music by the 6 missing presidents (Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce), we’d be delighted to give their opinions a forum here.

Like the ‘virtual séance’ we conducted in November 1999 with the six founders of the American Music Center, texts have been shuffled and re-organized to emulate a conversation relevant to music, but every statement contained here is in the words of an American president. It is a product of intensive research conducted by NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri and Assistant Editor Jenny Undercofler, with additional help from David Hughes, during the months of August and September 2000 at several branches of the New York Public Library, in consultation with various Presidential Libraries across the country, and on the World Wide Web. We are also greatly indebted to Elise K. Kirk’s wonderful book Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), which provides a remarkable treasure-trove of information about the musical attitudes of the people who have held this nation’s highest elected office.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.