Though it may not be for everyone, the job of President of the United States of America does have its perks. Take, for example, the ability to screen any film you like at the White House: here on Open Culture, we’ve previously featured lists of movies watched by Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. But for Carter in particular, music seems to have been even more important than cinema. So explains John Chuldenko, stepson of that former president’s son Jack, in the episode of The 1600 Sessions above. In it, he tells of his rediscovery of an institution created under Nixon, greatly expanded under Carter, and packed away under Reagan: the White House Record Library.
“The Library, begun by First Lady Pat Nixon, was curated by a volunteer commission of noted music journalists, scholars, and other experts,” says the White House Historical Association. When it came time to update it at the end of the nineteen-seventies, writes Washingtonian’s Rob Brunner, “the selection process would be headed by John Hammond, a hugely influential figure who had signed Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen.” Hammond also enlisted genre experts like “Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, who was responsible for jazz, and Boston music critic Bob Blumenthal, who led the pop picks.”
The resulting collection of more than 2,000 LPs contains more than a few albums you wouldn’t expect to hear at the White House. These include Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (which contains “one of the greatest critiques of both Southern and Northern racism,” as Blumenthal recalls), Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. On the more danceable end of the spectrum, the White House Record Library also includes Funkadelic’s, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Donna Summer — all of their work selected expressly for presidential use.
Having last been updated in 1981 and summarily carted off to “a secure undisclosed storage facility,” the Library remains a musical time capsule of that era. So Chuldenko discovered when, following a thread of family lore, he managed to track down a curator who could arrange a listening session for him. “There is no rap or hip-hop in there,” he said to Washingtonian. “There’s no electronic music. There are no boy bands, no Madonna or Britney Spears. No Michael Jackson!” Having succeeded in his mission of finding the White House Record Library, he’s set for himself the even more formidable challenge of bringing it up to date. Certainly its geographical purview will have to widen, given how America now listens to so much music from beyond its borders. Would the White House care to hear any K-pop recommendations?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.