The Musical Side of Abraham Lincoln

Mike_Fallon2by Mike Fallon

“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard.”
~Abraham Lincoln~ (April 10, 1865 — five days before his death)

It may seem ironic that the song “Dixie”, the rallying anthem of the Confederate South, would be one of President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite songs if not THE favorite. He even had it played at some of his political rallies. “Dixie” was composed by a northern songwriter named Dan Emmett for blackface minstrel shows in 1859, and it had become a popular song before the American Civil War in the 1860s.

It was during the Civil War that this song was adopted as a de facto anthem of the Confederate States of America. However, the Civil War never dimmed Lincoln’s love for the song “Dixie”, and he even had it played at the announcement of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. With the war over in April 1865, he believed it was important to bring the song back to our national songbook in order to heal the nation. When the war ended, Lincoln is reported to have said, That tune is now federal property, and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again. Lincoln had asked that “Dixie” be played at his last public address from the White House. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see that happen.

Here is a rousing rendition of “Dixie” filled with loads of Civil War images. “Dixie is also known as “I Wish I Was in Dixie”, “Dixie Land”, “I Wish I Was in Dixie Land”, “Dixie’s Land”, “Confederate Anthem”, and other titles.
(The artist of the music in this video is the 2nd South Carolina String Band.) (6:05)

Abraham Lincoln didn’t play an instrument unless you count the harmonica. He did carry a Hohner harmonica in his pocket. Why, even Honest Abe Lincoln wasn’t above playing a tune or two on the harmonica when the occasion demanded, as Carl Sandburg related in his book Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. As far as trying to sing, Lincoln’s voice could hardly carry a tune, so he would usually let others do the singing.

There was a musical side of Abraham Lincoln as president (1861-1865) that had a great passion for the musical arts. He enjoyed all sorts of music including rousing minstrel songs (“Dixie”), sentimental ballads, nonsense songs, patriotic tunes, and military band music. And, in his exuberance, and despite his lack of voice, he would even join in the singing himself at the right opportunities. He also loved musical theater and opera, and he attended productions whenever he could.

He regularly had music performed at the White House, most notably by the Marine Band where military music became an integral part of life at the White House. Lincoln also welcomed talented young musicians to the White House to perform such as the 9-year-old Venezuelan piano prodigy Teresa Carreño in 1863.

Music was a tonic for Lincoln’s melancholy moods and loneliness, much of it brought on by the heavy burdens and strains of being President of the United States during the darkest days of the Civil War. Lincoln was very much an emotional man and he showed his emotion whenever music was performed for him. During the Civil War, music was a release for him, and it also lifted his spirits when he needed it most. Lincoln was criticized for attending the opera so frequently while the war was ongoing. But going to the opera was the escape or change Lincoln needed at times or as he put it “The truth is I must have a change of some sort, or die.”

A Sampling of Lincoln’s Favorite Songs
(You can listen to samples of these songs using the playlist in the right sidebar.)
*** If you don’t see a right sidebar then click on the date above Mike Fallon’s head.
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President Abraham Lincoln loved listening to popular music of the time. Of course, since there were no recordings, it had to be performed live for him, usually in shows he attended or even at the White House.

Lincoln loved comic or nonsense songs. One particular favorite of his was “Blue Tail Fly”, also called “The Blue Tailed Fly” or “Jimmy Crack Corn.” This is thought to be a blackface minstrel song, first performed in the 1840s. It’s not clear who wrote this song. Lincoln called it “that buzzing song” which he likely tried to play on his harmonica. This song has an abolitionist attitude and it reflects the hostility of slave towards master in Southern plantation society.

Lincoln loved sentimental ballads and that included Irish and Scottish ballads. One of his favorites was “Annie Laurie” an old Scottish love ballad.

“Aura Lee”, also called “Aura Lea”by W. W. Fosdick (words) and George R. Poulton (music) is an American Civil War song about a maiden. If the tune sounds familiar it’s because it is used in the Elvis Presley song “Love Me Tender.”

Stephen Foster was a 19th century American songwriter known as the “father of American music”. Lincoln enjoyed many of his songs and ballads. The Stephen Foster songs presented in the playlist here are: “Gentle Annie,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “That’s What’s the Matter,” and “We Are Coming Father Abraam.” “We Are Coming Father Abraam” comes from a poem “We Are Coming, Father Abra’am 300,000 More,” written by James S. Gibbons and set to music by Foster. The poem and music came in response to a call by Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862 for volunteers to fight the American Civil War.

Another Civil War song enjoyed by Lincoln was “I’ll Be a Sergeant” credited to an unknown H.A.W.

As president, Lincoln also had a great love of opera especially grand opera. Lincoln even had Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha presented at his second inauguration in 1865. One of his favorite pieces of music, “The Soldiers’ Chorus” was from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust. Just a week before he was assassinated, he attended a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“Battle Cry of Freedom”, written by George F. Root, was another piece inspired by Lincoln’s call for Union volunteers in 1862.

“Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe, P. Wilhousky & Traditional was a marching song of the Northern army during the Civil War. It is said that President Abraham Lincoln was so moved by the song, he wept when he heard it.

“Listen to the Mocking Bird” was one of the most popular ballads during the Civil War. With its moderately lively melody, it was used as marching music. This song relates the story of a singer dreaming of his sweetheart, now dead and buried, and a mockingbird, whose song the couple once enjoyed, now singing over her grave.
Abraham Lincoln was especially fond of this song, saying, “It is as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play.”
(The artist of the music in this video is Tom Roush.) (3:38)


A big favorite of Lincoln was American composer and virtuoso pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk was a Southerner by birth, born in New Orleans, but surprisingly, a supporter of the Union side during the Civil War.
Lincoln enjoyed one of his most famous pieces “The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs).” The beginning of the piece starts off with a virtuosic and dazzling piano showpiece before calming down and launching into familiar American patriotic tunes we all know.

Here is
“The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs)”
by Louis Moreau Gottschalk
(The pianist in this video is Paul Bisaccia.) (7:51)


As mentioned earlier, Abraham Lincoln was a passionate lover of opera. During his four years as president he saw at least thirty opera productions in Washington with an occasional production in New York City. One of his favorite operas during this period was Martha by Friedrich von Flotow. In this opera there is a very beautiful aria “Ach so fromm,” where the male romantic lead, Lionel, sings a love song to the title character, Martha.
(The vocalist in this video is German operatic tenor, Jonas Kaufmann.) (3:25)


Thanks for visiting my blog and my 4th post.

Mike Fallon


Blog Post 4 — “The Musical Side of Abraham Lincoln” — November 28, 2013 (Revised July 16, 2017) (this Blog Post 4) (The Musical Nose Blog RSS Feed) (The Musical Nose website)

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2 thoughts on “The Musical Side of Abraham Lincoln

  1. Thanks for the detailed presentation. I wanted it verified that Lincoln indeed carried a harmonica in his pocket. I have The Prairie Years, but don’t remember reading that part. You truly sense his emotional core that found expression and solace in music.

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