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Thomas Greene Bethune (Blind Tom)

Thomas Greene Bethune ("Blind Tom"). Music Division, New York Public Library at the Lincoln Center
1850s

President Millard Fillmore and his family were particularly musical. Mrs. Fillmore, the former Abigail Powers, made certain the White House had not only a music room, but also three pianos. For relaxation Mrs. Fillmore enjoyed playing duets with her talented daughter, Mary Abigail, a fine amateur musician, proficient on the piano, harp and guitar. During the Fillmore administration, the famous diva, Jenny Lind, visited the White House, and later, during the administration of James Buchanan, a complete opera troupe came to call on the president. The most amazing performer to entertain at the White House during this era, however, was the young black concert pianist, Thomas Greene Bethune [see more below].

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 34-37.


Landmark Era Performance  ›  1857: The young black concert pianist, Thomas Greene Bethune, called "Blind Tom," entertained on the beautiful Chickering grand piano, purchased for the White House in 1857.





President Lincoln reviews New York volunteer troops on Independence Day, 1861, before the White House

President Lincoln reviews New York volunteer troops on Independence Day, 1861, before the White House. The White House
1860s

Abraham Lincoln could neither sing nor read music, but he loved music with a passion. He attended the opera at least thirty times while he was president, and when once criticized for these diversions during the turbulent Civil War years, he said frankly, "I must have a change or I will die." Inside the White House, music reflected America’s eclectic tastes in music: the nine-year-old piano prodigy, Tereas Carreno; the singing midget, Commodore Nutt; and the American Indian songstress, Larooqua, all performed on various occasions. Outside the White House, far into the night, masses sang George F. Root’s immortal "Battle Cry of Freedom," Dan Emmett’s "Dixie" and other tunes that revealed the soul of a people, who knew the powers of both tragedy and joy, defeat and victory. After the war, when Andrew Johnson took office in 1865, the tone of musical expression in the mansion changed through the lighthearted interests of the Johnson children and grandchildren. Described by some as "an old-fashioned, hospitable, home-like farm house," the White House under Andrew Johnson rang with children’s voices, games, good spirits, music--and especially dancing.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 38-48.


Landmark Era Performances  ›  1861-1865: War songs and patriotic music often were performed at the Lincoln White House. President Lincoln was especially fond of the Marine Band performances in the White House and weekly concerts on the grounds.





Marie (Selika) Williams

Marie ("Selika") Williams. Library of Congress
1870s

President Ulysses S. Grant was once said to have known "only two tunes. One is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t." But the great military hero of the Civil War, General Grant did, in fact, enjoy the music of the Marine Band, which gave concerts regularly on the White House grounds every Saturday during summer and early fall. As America’s musical life escalated throughout the nation, Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, brought to the White House at least twenty-five different opera singers, instrumentalists, and choral groups that represented the finest in American cultural tastes of the latter part of the century. One of the outstanding programs of the Hayes period was the performance of the brilliant young coloratura soprano, Marie Selika [see more below]. With such fine programs as this, President and Mrs. Rutherford Hayes inaugurated the musicale tradition that exists in the White House today.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 52-59.


Landmark Era Performance  ›  1878: One of the most outstanding programs of the era was the performance in the Green Room of the brilliant young African-American coloratura soprano, Marie Selika, who appears to be the earliest black artist to have presented a program at the White House. Selika had toured Europe and had sung for several crowned heads of state. With such fine programs such as this, President and Mrs. Rutherford Hayes inaugurated the musicale tradition that exists in the White House today.





John Philip Sousa. U.S. Marine Band

John Philip Sousa. U.S. Marine Band White House Collection
1880s

During the administration of President Chester Arthur, the first East Room concert for specially invited guests took place, when the famous Canadian soprano, Emma Albani, sang in 1883. A great enthusiast of opera and song, President Arthur was also deeply moved by the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ colorful melding of blues, minstrel song and European-like hymns later during his term [see more below]. The most famous White House musical personality of the Hayes through Harrison era, however, was John Philip Sousa, who served five presidents as leader of the Marine Band in the White House from 1880 to 1892. A formidable showman, Sousa was the first American-born leader of the Marine Band . He was also a composer of operettas, songs, suites and more than 100 marches represented by his immortal "Semper Fidelis" (1888) and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (1897). During his White House tenure, John Philip Sousa not only raised the Marine Band’s level of musicianship and modernized its instrumentation, but he developed a concert band repertory of almost symphonic proportions.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 62-67.


Landmark Era Performance  ›  1882: One of the most remarkable vocal programs of the century was held on February 17. The Jubilee Singers from Fisk University filled the White House with the sounds of their singing, including Safe in the Arms of Jesus, that moved President Chester Arthur to tears.





"Goo Goo Eyes" (1900)

"Goo Goo Eyes" (1900). Library of Congress
1890s

Social dancing was especially enjoyed during the terms of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley and its popularity within the White House reflected the changing times. While President Harrison enjoyed a form of waltz, known as "The German," McKinley at his Valentine’s Day Dance preferred the new two-step, such as "Goo-Goo Eyes," which illustrated the merging of ragtime and social dance as the century turned. But many distinguished performers appeared at the White House at this time, too. They included the great soprano "Black Patti" (Sissieretta Jones); the violinist, Joseph Douglass, grandson of orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass; and the composer and cellist, Ernest Lent, whose Piano Trio in B Major was probably the earliest serious chamber music performed at the White House [see more below]. The Lent ensemble played for President and Mrs. McKinley and seventy guests after a dinner for the Supreme Court in 1898, thus setting the stage for the state dinner/musicale pattern that would become the focal point for modern entertaining at the White House.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 81-83.


Landmark Era Performances  ›  

1892: John Philip Sousa completed a distinguished 12-year period as the director of the U.S. Marine Band bringing world fame to "The President's Own." He conducted the band's first sound recordings, initiated its first national concert tour, and started to write the marches that earned him the title "The March King."

1898: The Lent ensemble played for President and Mrs. McKinley and seventy guests after a dinner for the Supreme Court in 1898, setting the stage for the state dinner/musicale as the focal point for modern entertaining at the White House.



Sources: Elise K. Kirk, Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit. University of Illinois, 1986 and Musical Highlights from the White House. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1992.


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