Musical Tastes

Abraham Lincoln and Music

Most nights, President Abraham Lincoln worked “in his office, though occasionally he remained in the drawing room after dinner, conversing with visitors or listening to music, for which he had an especial liking, though he was not versed in the science and preferred simple ballads to more elaborate compositions,” wrote White House aide John Hay.1

Mr. Lincoln sometimes listened to opera music, but he liked simpler folk tunes. On the way to and from the Soldiers’ Home in Northeast Washington where he often spent summer nights, Lincoln usually passed a contraband camp, Camp Barker, at Vermont Avenue and Twelfth Street. An escaped slave and nurse, Mary Dines, helped run the encampment. Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote: “After the war, Mary Dines told an interviewer that ‘President Lincoln stopped many times’ at her contraband camp ‘to visit and talk with the former slaves. She remembered one occasion when the president and Mary Lincoln, along with a small entourage of guests, arrived to hear a musical performance arranged especially for them. Dines led the singing of various Negro spirituals such as ‘Nobody Knows What Trouble I See, but Jesus’ and ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” As she finished, the cook was startled to see the president ‘wiping the tears off his face with his bare hands.’ Despite the fact that the ex-slaves had been warned beforehand to limit their performance for the busy president, Lincoln refused to leave quickly. Even when ‘the real old folks forgot about the President being present and began to shout and yell,’ Dines recalled, ‘he didn’t laugh at them, but stood like a stone and bowed his head.’ During the last performance, ‘John Brown’s Body,’ she said that the president even sang along in ‘a sweet voice.’”2

President Lincoln was not normally a singer although his musical preferences were influenced by his love of poetry. Mr. Lincoln was a whistler. War Department telegraph operator Charles Tinker recalled that “when exultant over successes of the army or navy, with confidence restored, or encouraged by some new evidence of the loyal support of his countrymen to sustain them, he has manifested his pleasure to the delight of all about him, by humming or whistling some favorite air as he paced the floor at leisure.”3

British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill liked to sing – rather badly – sometimes just bits of songs. What Churchill hated was whistling. His staff needed to be very careful to inhibit whistling near him – a particular problem aboard ships where seamen were not used to such prohibitions. On a trip by sea to the United States in December 1941, Churchill stenographer Patrick Kinna, himself rather diminutive, recalled: “I well remember one morning when I was taking dictation from WSC in his cabin, feeling none too well because of the very rough seas, my feelings being aggravated by the PM’s cigar-smoke, I could hear some matelots whistling and I knew only too well from experience that the PM could not bear whistling at any time. I hoped he couldn’t hear it – but he did! Suddenly he angrily told me to go and tell those sailors to stop whistling. I had a shrewd idea what they would say to me! However, I hastily left his cabin, not knowing quite what to do. I think I said a few hurried prayers and the whistling miraculously ceased. I returned to continue taking dictation, the Prime Minister obviously believing that I had quietened [sic] the ship’s company!”4

Churchill bodyguard William H. Thompson noted: “On one occasion he asked his secretary to open the window and tell people who were whistling as they walked on the Horse Guards Parade to stop. She naturally told him that he could hardly interfere with the public in that manner, but he tried it himself one day. We were walking down King Charles Street, on the way to No. 10 Downing Street, when a newspaper boy came toward us whistling as loud as he could. When the Prime Minister got close to him, he turned to the boy and said very abruptly, ‘Stop that whistling!’ The boy looked at him for a moment and then replied, ‘Why should I?’ The boy strolled past us, gave a side glance at Mr. Churchill and said, ‘You can shut your ears, can’t you?’ This reply seemed to amuse the Prime Minister as much as it surprised him, for as he entered the Foreign Office Yard he chuckled to himself and kept repeating, ‘You can shut your ears, can’t you?’”5

In 1943 after a sleepless night, a sick and feverish Churchill ordered nearby cows to cease their mooing.6 Churchill could not shut his ears to irritating sounds – to anything that disturbed his concentration as he worked. One night in Moscow in 1944, a collection of various sounds disrupted Churchill until his irritation was piqued by hammering in a nearby house. “After one glance at The Countenance,” reported a secretary, “I left the room without a word and implored the housekeeper to do something about the trouble.”7

President Lincoln was more attuned to the sounds around him. He particularly liked to hear his friend Ward Hill Lamon when both attorneys traveled the byways of the Eighth Judicial District in Illinois. In October 1862, U.S. Marshal Lamon accompanied President Lincoln on a visit to the Antietam battlefield, where thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers had died. “Sing one of your sad little songs,” said Lincoln to Lamon, who understood that Lincoln meant Lamon should sing “Twenty Years Ago” which “touched his great heart. ” Lamon recalled: “Many a time, in the old days of our familiar friendship on the Illinois circuit, and often at the White House when he and I were alone, have I seen him in tears while I was rendering, in my poor way, that homely melody. The late Judge David Davis, the Hon. Leonard Swett, and Judge Corydon Beckwith were equally partial to the same ballad. Often have I seen those great men overcome by the peculiar charm they seemed to find in the sentiment and melody of that simple song”8:

I’ve wondered to the village, Tom.
I”ve sat beneath the tree
Upon the schoolhouse playground,
That sheltered you and me;
But none were there to greet me, Tom,
And few were left to know
That played with us upon the grass
Some twenty years ago…

What Lamon did next would prompt a campaign controversy in Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign. Lamon well understood the impact that melancholy could have on his friend. Lamon wrote: “As I well knew it would, the song only deepened his sadness. I then did what I had done many times before: I startled him from his melancholy by striking up a comic air, singing also a snatch from ‘Picayune Butler,’ which broke the spell of ‘the little sad song,’ and restored somewhat his accustomed easy humor. It was not the first time I had pushed hilarity — simulated though it was — to an extreme for his sake. I had often recalled him from a pit of melancholy into which he was prone to descend, by a jest, a comic song, or a provoking sally of a startling kind; and Mr. Lincoln always thanked me afterward for my well-timed rudeness ‘of kind intent.’” Lamon continued:

This reminds me of one or two little rhythmic shots I often fired at him in his melancholy moods, and it was a kind of nonsense that he always keenly relished. One was a parody on “Life on the Ocean Wave.”

Mr. Lincoln would always laugh immoderately when I sang this jingling nonsense to him. It reminded him of the rude and often witty ballads that had amused him in his boyhood days. He was fond of negro melodies, and “The Blue-Tailed Fly” was a favorite. He often called for that buzzing ballad when we were alone, and he wanted to throw off the weight of public and private cares.

A comic song in the theatre always restored Mr. Lincoln’s cheerful good-humor. But while he had a great fondness for witty and mirth-provoking ballads, our grand old patriotic airs and songs of the tender and sentimental kind afforded him the deepest pleasure. “Ben Bolt” was one of his favorite ballads; so was “The Sword of Bunker Hill; ” and he was always deeply moved by “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant”….9

Lincoln was also the subject of songs written during the Civil War – most notably “We are Coming, Father Abraham.” Originally a poem by New York Quaker James S. Gibbons, it was set to music by Stephen Foster. One day at the White House, a “middle-aged rugged” man “with strongly marked features” arrived at the White House, declaring to the secretaries: “I want to sing for Mr. Lincoln…I’m Gibbons.” The secretaries were joined by six senators, some military officers, and everyone else who was available. Aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “We all paraded into the Cabinet Room with Mr. Lincoln’s sanction to give James S. Gibbons an audience”:

If you look up our valleys where the growing harvests shine.
You may see our study farmer boys fast forming into line…
And a farewell group stands weeping at every cottage door:
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.10

President Lincoln also liked a particular southern song. Early in the evening of Monday, April 10, 1865, serenaders gathered at the White House expecting a speech from President Lincoln about the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote: “The President soon after made his appearance, and for a moment the scene was of the wildest confusion; men fairly yelled with delight, tossed up their hats and screamed like mad. Seen from the windows, the surface of the crowd looked like an agitated sea of hats, faces and men’s arms. Quiet restored, the President briefly congratulated the people on the occasion which had called out such unrestrained enthusiasm, and said that as arrangements were being made for a more formal celebration, he would defer his remarks until then; for, said he, ‘I shall have nothing to say then if it is all dribbled out of me now,’ whereat the crowd good humoredly laughed. He alluded to the presence of the band, and said that our adversary had always claimed one old good tune — Dixie — but that he held that on the 8th of April we fairly captured it — in fact, he said, he had submitted the question to the Attorney General, who had decided that the tune was our lawful property; and he asked that the band play ‘Dixie,’ which they did with a will, following with ‘Yankee Doodle.’ The President then proposed three cheers for General Grant and the officers and men under him, then three for the navy, all of which were given heartily, and the crowd dispersed.”11

President Lincoln declared, as army Sergeant Smith Stimmel remembered: “‘My friends, you call for a speech, but I cannot make a speech at this time; undue importance might be given to what I would say. I must take time to think. If you will come here to-morrow evening, I will have something to say to you.’ With loud cheering and waving of hats the crowd shouted, ‘We’ll come!’ Then the President said, ‘You have a band with you, and there is one piece of music I have always liked, which heretofore it has not seemed proper to make use of in the North, but now, by virtue of my prerogative as president of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I declare it contraband of war and our lawful prize; I ask the band to play ‘Dixie.’” Again the crowd went wild, and the band struck up Dixie’ with all the wind power it had.’”12

Churchill Private Secretary John Martin recalled Christmas 1940 at Chequers as a family affair: “[W]e have a sort of sing-song until after midnight. The PM sang lustily, if not always in tune, and when Vic [Oliver] played Viennese waltzes he danced a remarkably frisky measure of his own in the middle of the room.”13 Churchill had a strong memory – although it not always include complete lyrics. “I have got tunes in my head for every war I have been to, and indeed for every critical or exciting phase of my life,” Churchill wrote in 1930. “Some day when my ship comes home, I am going to have them all collected in gramophone records, and then I will sit in a chair and smoke my cigar, while pictures and faces, moods and sensations long vanished return; and pale but true there gleams the light of other days.”14 In January 1941, Harry Hopkins, a close associate of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, spent several weeks with Churchill. On one weekend visit to the prime ministerial retreat at Chequers, Hopkins brought a collection of American records. Churchill played them for hours. One British secretary recalled “We had these until well past midnight, the PM walking about, sometimes dancing a pas-seul, in time to the music. We all got a bit sentimental and Anglo-American under the influence of a good dinner and the music.”15

In May 1941, Winston Churchill was staying at Chequers for the weekend when he learned that Britain’s fastest battleship, the HMS Hood, has been sunk by the German Bismarck. When he joined his guests, he was looking “inexpressibly grim,” reported his son-in-law, Vic Oliver. “We guessed that yet another disaster had occurred, though we knew it was no use to ask him what it was. Mrs. Churchill quietly poured him a glass of port, and, thinking it would relieve the tension, suggested I play something on the piano I was about to start on Lily of Laguna, but immediately checked myself, feeling that a popular song would be out of place; so after a few seconds’ reflection I decided on Beethoven’s Appasionata sonata, but I had played only a few bars when Mr Churchill rose to his feet and thundered: ‘Stop! Don’t play that!’” Asked why, Churchill declared “Nobody plays the Dead March in my house.” Oliver countered: “It’s not the Dead March. It’s the Appassionata sonata.” In his memoirs: Oliver noted: “Mr. Churchill was notoriously unmusical” His father-in-law insisted: “You can say what you like, I know it’s the funeral march.”

Whatever the limitations of his musical knowledge, Churchill liked music, particularly martial music. He particularly liked “Gilbert and Sullivan and old music-hall songs.”16 Churchill also had a rich sense of irony. His daughter Sarah remembered that when she and her father were on trips, he sang the Gilbert and Sullivan song: “A wandering minstrel I.”17 Even in Moscow, he enjoyed a performance of martial songs by the Red Army Choir in mid-October 1944. In December 1940, Churchill was invited to his old school, Harrow, to speak. Harrow had occupied a black spot for Churchill since he and a colleague had been booed there in 1911. The prime minister agreed to go if they would sing old school songs. Indeed, a new verse was added in Churchill’s honor.

“Certainly I think the songs are very important,” Churchill declared during another visit in 1942. “I enjoy them very much. I know many of them by heart. I was telling the Head Master just now that I could pass an examination in some of them. They are a great treasure and possession of Harrow School, and keep the flame burning in a marvellous manner. Many carry them with them all their lives. You have the songs of Bowen and Howson (whom I remember well as House Masters here) with the music of John Farmer and Eaton Faning. They are wonderful, marvellous, more than could be put into bricks and mortar, or treasured in any trophies of silver or gold.”18 The sentimental Churchill told his son Randolph: “Listening to those boys singing all those well-remembered songs I could see myself fifty years before singing those tales of great deeds and of great men and wondering with intensity how I could ever do something glorious for my country.”19

Once more in 1945, Churchill returned to Harrow. In a speech to the students, he explained that he had wanted to play the kettle drum at school. That turned out not be possible. “So I gave up that ambition and transferred my aspirations to another part of the orchestra. I thought, ‘If I cannot have the kettle-drum I might try to be the conductor.” He never got to fulfill that desire at Harrow. “[E]ventually, after a great deal of perseverance, I rose to be conductor of quite a considerable band. It was a very large band and it played with very strange and formidable instruments, and the roar and thunder of its music resounded throughout the world.”20

Churchill liked to sing – not necessarily well. And he liked to dance no matter what the hour. General Alan Brooke recalled one late night session at Chequers: “Finally at 2.15 a.m. he suggested we should proceed to the hall to have some sandwiches, and I hoped this might at last mean bed. He had the gramophone turned on, and in the many-coloured dressing-gown, with a sandwich in one hand and watercress in the other, he trotted round and round the hall, giving occasional little skips to the tune of the gramophone. On each lap near the fireplace he stopped to release some priceless quotation or thought.”21

During the Casablanca summit conference in January 1943, Prime Minister Churchill was serenaded by African-American troops. Churchill was particularly affected by a rendition of “Londonderry Air.” The next day, he had the words transcribed so he could send them to his wife.22 When he returned to London in February, Churchill caught pneumonia and was confined to bed. To treat his head pains, a nurse rubbed oil of wintergreen on the prime minister’s head. Each time, Churchill would sing the same song – one that had been sung during World War I:

Wash me in the water
Which you washed your dirty daughter in
And I will be whiter
Than the whitewash on the wall.23

The opinionated Churchill had firm opinions about music. Aide John Martin wrote on May 28, 1944, Ukrainian-born pianist Benno “Moiseiwitsch played the piano” at Chequers. “The PM startled us by saying that what mattered in music are the silences between the notes.”24 Churchill could burst into song at any excuse or in any venue – but he often matched his musical selections to the occasion. In early July, 1943 as Churchill waited for a train to take him to a ship for a conference with Americans in Quebec, Churchill sang:

“I go away
This very day
To sail across the sea –

At the Yalta summit conference in February 1945, Churchill reacted to a suggestion by Josef Stalin that England wanted a separate peace with Germany by singing “a few lines of his favourite song ‘Keep right on to the end of the road.’ Stalin looked extremely puzzled,” according to Churchill military aide Richard Pim. “The President said with a broad grin to the Russian interpreter: ‘Tell your Chief that this singing by the Prime Minister is Britain’s secret weapon.’”26 By the time the European war was clearly winding down in mid-April, Churchill grew ebullient. On night at Chequers, “PM tried to dance a Viennese waltz in the Great Hall with [daughter] Sarah Oliver,” reported secretary Marian Holmes. “He got dizzy and cried ‘Stop’ and went staggering around closely followed by Cmdr. [Tommy] Thompson holding a chair in readiness for him to fall into.”27

Abraham Lincoln liked music but he left it to others like Ward Hill Lamon to sing. Churchill had no such inhibitions. He sang whenever the mood struck him. Aide John Colville wrote of Churchill’s musical tastes: “Harry Lauder, that ‘grand old minstrel,’ as Churchill described him to the Canadian Parliament, competed with Gilbert and Sullivan, military marches and the Harrow school songs for supremacy in Churchill’s not unduly highbrow musical repertory. When Lauder left the stage during a wartime music-hall performance and learned the grievous news that his only son had been killed in action, he returned to face the audience and sang to them ‘Keep Right On to the End of the Road,’ Churchill, too, was determined to keep right on to the end.”28

Lincoln was determined to keep right on until “Dixie” belonged to the whole, reunited country.

For Further Reference

  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 136.
  2. Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, p. 68.
  3. Charles Tinker, A Simple Tribute to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln.
  4. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, pp. 14-15 (Letter from Peter Kinna to Martin Gilbert, October 10, 1984).
  5. Walter Thompson, Beside the Bulldog: The Intimate Memoirs of Churchill’s Bodyguard, p. 88.
  6. Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden, p. 263.
  7. Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 103.
  8. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, pp. 150.
  9. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, pp. 151-152.
  10. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, pp. 172-173.
  11. Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed, pp.181-183.
  12. Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 77-79.
  13. John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 37.
  14. Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself, p. 540.
  15. Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill: A Life, p. 689 (Eric Seal)
  16. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 726 (April 1, 1944).
  17. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p.1227.
  18. Winston S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill’s Maxims and Reflections, p 36
  19. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, p. 20.
  20. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, p. 20.
  21. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, editors, War Diaries of Lord Alanbrooke 1939-1945, p. 194 (October 26, 1941).
  22. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 304.
  23. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 344.
  24. John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 149.
  25. Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden, p. 243.
  26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1209.
  27. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1296 (April 15, 1945).
  28. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 266.
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