In the fall of 1945, six months after inheriting the presidency upon the April death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman was back home in his beloved state of Missouri, visiting the county fair in the small town of Caruthersville.
Without too much coaxing, the new President took to the platform of the Methodist Women’s Mission and sat down to play their piano for a gathering crowd.
Before touching the keys, he turned and cracked at them all, “When I played this, Stalin signed the Potsdam Agreement.”
Working throughout his life to improve his skills as a pianist, President Truman knew his music.
While he named his favorite classical pieces as being Chopin’s A-Flat Waltz, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A-Major, Beethoven’s Piano Concert No. 4 in G and Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, he also avidly loved the popular music of his youth, the ragtime, cakewalks and Tin Pan Alley songs of the Oughts and the Teens.
Alongside Musician, the other identity Truman proudly embraced was Missourian. He had been born to a poor farming family in the rural hamlet of Grandview, then matured, married and lived in the booming town of Independence and worked in a haberdashery and conducted political business in the nearby big city of Kansas City.
He loved Missouri ham, its green corn and sourgum syrup.
Truman was even a mighty fine judge of the famous “Missouri mules,” those half-horse, half-donkeys which pulled ploughs and showed just as stubborn a streak as he did, his arch skepticism a seeming embodiment even of the state motto, “you have to show me.”
As he barnstormed the country in his 1948 campaign train, however, at thousands of whistle-stops in small-town and large-city railroad depots, “giving hell” to the crowds of voters who clustered around the back platform of the caboose to hear the President speak, every single high school band, local musicians’ union or amateur chamber ensemble played the one song he hated the most.
It was called the Missouri Waltz.
As he would explain to a newspaper reporter in 1958, “I just got tired of it. After all, they played it 30,000 times or more during that 1948 presidential campaign.”
Here is a video clip from a PBS documentary on Truman, narrated by Jason Robards. The first minute and a half shows his Republican opponent, New York Governor Tom Dewey on his whistlestop train, set to his campaign song. At 1:19, it switches to Truman, with footage of his whistlestop tour set against the droning sound of that song, with some recollections of those who experienced it. * Note there seems to be some problem viewing this particular video, “Harry Truman in Philadelphia, Part 3,” on sites other than Youtube. In case it doesn’t play here, you can watch in on youtube, you might try this link as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVPZBAezJAw&feature=relmfu
However, Truman’s claim – a decade after the fact – that the reason for his acquired distaste of the Missouri Waltz was his having to repeatedly endure it during the 1948 campaign conflicts with some other realities.
Four years prior, just as he was officially declared the vice presidential nominee at the 1944 Democratic National Convention, Truman was mortified when the band struck up the Missouri Waltz in his honor.
Even more peculiar is why the famously outspoken President refused to state that not only did he not want to hear the Missouri Waltz on the campaign trail anymore, but it had never been “his favorite song” as was widely reported.
It was again in retrospect, during a television interview in the 1950s that Truman offered an explanation for why he disliked the song yet hadn’t been publicly plain-spoken about it: “It’s a ragtime song and if you let me say what I think, I don’t give a damn about it, but I can’t say it out loud because it’s the song of Missouri. It’s as bad as The Star Spangled Banner as far as music is concerned.”
Suggesting, as he did in the 1950s, that he didn’t register his dislike of t the Missouri Waltz because it was his state’s official song does not, however, contradicts the fact that it wasn’t until July of 1949, a year after the campaign that the Missouri legislature passed the bill establishing it as the state’s official song. Truman had won the election. Even if his dislike of it had bruised the feelings of his fellow Missourians, it would not have come at a political cost.
Even worse, Truman’s district representative had proposed the idea of making it the official song, giving it further association with the proud Missourian seeking to dissociate himself from it. The President of the United States certainly had the prestige and power to prevent the hated song from coming to represent his beloved state.
Although his remark that the quality of the song was “bad” suggests he didn’t like the sound of it but it was, in fact, the lyrics which is almost certainly the entire reason Truman disliked the Missouri Waltz. Published in 1914, with music by John Valentine Eppel, its lyrics, by James Royce Shannon, drew on Old South stereotypes of African-Americans and used offensive “phrases and nicknames.”
Truman had grown up in the southern region of Missouri, where just such a racially discriminatory culture prevailed; how own mother remained staunchly loyal to the Confederacy and despised Lincoln. Just then, he’d alienated pro-segregationist Southern Democrats by enacting the racial integration of the Armed Forces, and insisting on a civil rights plank in the party’s platform.
He caused a walkout by four southern state delegations at the convention which nominated him, which then formed the Dixiecrat Party which nominated Strom Thurmond as its own presidential candidate. It was perhaps his reasoning to not further alienate southern votes, a strong Democratic base, which led Truman to not publicly deride the Missouri Waltz.
The public was highly conscious of the song’s racist lyrics and it became the issue of debate a year later in the legislature considering it for the state song. Representative Noel Cox , an opponent, said it didn’t “portray the life of Missouri,” while supporter Baxter Waters supported it, claiming the lyrics weren’t “meant to be objectionable.”
Truman’s difficulty was resolved by a purely coincidental incident which took place in July of 1948, at the Union Station welcoming ceremony for him, when his train returned there from the first leg of his campaign whistlestop tour.
It proved to be not only the happiest accident in presidential campaign song history but just the political echo Truman needed to counteract the noise of the Missouri Waltz.
With apparently no instructions about what to play at the ceremony for Truman, the Metropolitan Police Band struck up a song familiar to most Americans at the time, and certainly the President, not only as a result of his encyclopedic knowledge of popular music but also because his first name was in the song’s title.
It was called I’m Just Wild Abouut Harry.
Listening along with an eye on the delighted President at Union Station, an aide with the National Democratic Committee, which had organized the ceremony, immediately contacted the composers for permission to use their work as the official Truman campaign song.
The duo was no novelty songwriting team, or even just the successful composers of popular Broadway hits from the era of Truman’s younger years. In fact, lyricist Noble Sissle and composer Eubie Blake were black Americans active in the NAACP who’d used their work to break down racial barriers.
I’m Just Wild About Harry was the hit song from the first Broadway musical written, produced, directed and starring African-Americans.
The show, Shuffle Along, (1921), not only launched the careers of prominent African-American performers like Josephine Baker, but was the first to depict a fully-developed love story between a black man and black woman.
Not only did the team grant Truman permission to use the song, but Eubie Blake even rewrote the lyrics, with a subtle message of appreciative support from African Americans for his historic decision that summer of 1948 to desegregate the Armed Forces.
On his 99th birthday, Eubie Blake told the legendary folk-singer and music historian Oscar Brand, “Mr. Truman integrated the armed forces. I would write him an opera if he wanted.”
In the new lyrics, the musical legend made subtle reference to Truman’s historic act and how it showed respect to him, Blake, as a man of color: “I’m just wild about Harry And Harry’s wild about me. The fates decreed it, and I agreed it, Harry made history!”
When Truman returned to the campaign trail, be it by train, plane or car, he had a new song with which the public could now identify him by – and one which made him visibly happier.
Now, whenever he rode through small towns in an open-car, heading to a town square platform to deliver a speech, the high school bands introduced him by blaring out I’m Just Wild About Harry.
No recording was made of the Truman version of I’m Just Wild About Harry. Many versions were recorded, by artists ranging from Al Jolson to Judy Garland.
The contemporary example used here is from the movie Greenwich Village, (1944) as sung by Carmen Miranda (with some Portuguese reflecting her native Brazil).
It’s chosen to evoke the fact that Truman credited watching her film, Something for the Boys, for lifting his spirits as he voyaged across the Atlantic, headed for his historic Potsdam conference with Stalin and Churchill – as well as Bess Truman’s love of all things Latin American:
Bess Truman, although by her husband’s side during the 1948 whistlestop campaign tour, never believed her husband would win.
First Daughter Margaret Truman, however, was convinced that her father would pull off the upset that he did, and assumed the prominent speaking role on the train tour that was usually assumed by a candidate’s wife.
Although Eubie Blake was initially contacted, apparently on a suggestion by Margaret, to perform at her father’s Inauguration in January of 1949, the request was cancelled at the last minute by an entertainment coordinator without explanation.
There’s no suggestion the Trumans realized or approved the rescinded invitation; they remained in admiration of Sissel and Blake.
Margaret Truman, who lived in New York City, attended several of Blake’s jazz concerts there, which he performed right up until his 1983 death at age 100.
Some twenty years after the campaign, former President Truman contacted them about the history of the song, and they responded with a letter explaining how it came about and sending an archive of the history of I’m Just Wild About Harry.
Here’s a copy of the cover letter, summarizing the evolution of it into the campaign song:
Still, the Missouri Waltz would forever haunt Truman.
When the President and Mrs. Nixon visited the ailing former President and his wife, they came donating to the Truman Presidential Library and Museum a piano he’d once used in the White House.
The former President insisted he could no longer play. Bess Truman then turned to Nixon, piping up, “Aren’t you going to play something?” Nixon, the only pianist President since Truman, had not thought about preparing any music to perform. But he could do a passable rendition of an old familiar song.
As the unmistakeable sound of the Missouri Waltz began, Bess Truman repressed a smile and shot her husband a scolding glance – to keep him from expressing his obvious discomfort at it.
On another occasion, when the former President was walking down a large hotel lobby on his way to the lavatory, a band leader in one of the ballrooms spotted him through an open door as he passed.
He abruptly halted the dance number being played and immediately instructed his orchestra to strike up the old, familiar song nobody knew Truman hated so much.
“It’s getting so,” he muttered to a friend with him, “you can’t go to the men’s room anymore without them playing that song.”
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