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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: If we could time-travel for concerts, which U.S. president would you be curious to hear, playing the violin?

February 10, 2012 at 11:03 PM

If we could time-travel for concerts, which U.S. president would you be curious to hear, playing the violin?

After much searching and confirming, I can tell you that three former U.S. presidents played the violin. Wouldn't it be interesting, to see how they played? At least it's something to consider during the two upcoming U.S. holidays, Lincoln's birthday and President's Day.

Here is a rundown of the fiddle-playing presidents:

Thomas Jefferson John Tyler Richard Nixon
From left to right, Thomas Jefferson (as portrayed by actor Bill Barker), a statue of John Tyler in Rapid City, SD, and Richard Nixon as a child.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) Third president of the United States: Jefferson was a lifelong violinist who may well have owned some very nice equipment. He had three fiddles -- one which may have been a Niccolo Amati, and he also may have had a Tourte bow. He said that he practiced violin three hours a day as a youngster, and he learned to read music, collecting a library of music by Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, Campioni and Haydn. He also romanced his future wife, Martha Skelton, by playing for her.

John Tyler (1790-1862) 10th president of the United States: Tyler apparently played the violin quite well -- a number of sources call him a "gifted violinist" and one even says that he aspired to be a concert violinist. A statue of Tyler with his fiddle stands today in downtown Rapid City, S.D. (Another source also says John Tayler "organized his 15 children in a White House minstrel band"!)

Richard Nixon (1913-1994) 37th president of the United States: Richard Nixon was a classically-trained pianist, having started piano at age 7, and apparently he also played second violin in his high school orchestra, as Life magazine reported in November 1970.

Though a few sources said Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln played the violin, a careful reading of the facts do not bear that out. I called the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia, and a librarian said that, though Wilson liked to sing and was in the Glee Club at Johns Hopkins University, he did not play the violin. His brother, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, who was 11 years younger, played the violin. Also, Paula Werne, a communications director at Holiday World in Indiana, contacted a historian at the next-door Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Indiana - he said he's never seen any information indicating that Lincoln played the violin.

Be careful, quoting the Internet!

If we could go back in time, which U.S. president would you be curious to hear, playing the violin?

Update: Reader Eric Won sends in this photo: "The gentleman giving then-Vice President Nixon a violin is Nicola Reale, an immigrant luthier from Italy who was head of musical instruments with the Smithsonian. This photo is from 1957, when Mr. Reale gave Mr. Nixon this instrument, which he built, as a gift."

Nixon and Reale

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 11:14 PM
Jefferson was such a brilliant and educated man, I'd love the opportunity to see him do almost anything. Nixon, though, that's an interesting concept. Never thought of him as a musician.
From Marsha Weaver
Posted on February 11, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Jefferson -- definitely Jefferson. I've always found him intriguing as a historical figure, and it sounds like the composers whose music was included in his library are among my favorites.
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on February 11, 2012 at 2:40 AM
I wonder if Jefferson ever played for his slaves...

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