The White House’s Forgotten 1970s Vinyl Record Collection: Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Captain Beefheart, Donna Summer & More

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?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Announces an Archive That Will House His Man­u­scripts, Let­ters & Col­lec­tion of 10,000+ Vinyl Records

Google Gives 360° Tour of the White House

Lis­ten to James Baldwin’s Record Col­lec­tion in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spo­ti­fy Playlist

The Library of Con­gress Makes Its Archives Free for DJs to Remix: Intro­duc­ing the “Cit­i­zen DJ” Project

David Bowie Lists His 25 Favorite LPs in His Record Col­lec­tion: Stream Most of Them Free Online

The Inter­net Archive Is Dig­i­tiz­ing & Pre­serv­ing Over 100,000 Vinyl Records: Hear 750 Full Albums Now

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.

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Comments (18)
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  • Riley Whitener says:

    I’d love to have that col­lec­tion!

  • Oscar says:

    Jim­my Carter def­i­nite­ly includ­ed the All­man Broth­ers Band, and the Mar­shall Tuck­er Band who both held con­certs for Carter.
    Sex Pis­tols LP includes the sin­gle ‘God Save the Queen’ banned by BBC. Even their label refused to release it, Vir­gin Records picked it up, near­ly a #1 song.
    State Dept would be appalled as the Queen was not amused.

  • Jake Forrest says:

    Just anoth­er exam­ple of Rea­gan suck­ing. I was a Ron­nie believ­er at one time but some of the shit he pulled was bad news. He just did­n’t get caught.

  • Pete Bellotte says:

    How can I find out which Don­na Sum­mer album is the the White House Record Library please.
    Pete Bel­lotte

  • Klodia says:

    I bet the albums are in bet­ter con­di­tion than mine. 😀

  • Marvin Washington says:

    These LP’s was perched with tax pay­ers mon­ey so if no one else is claim­ing them I want my albums sent to me asap..Thank You!

  • Marty says:

    I wish I could have that col­lec­tion I have am a vinyl junkie

  • Robert Mazzella says:

    I won­der if Nixon or Rea­gan put in any Charley Pride records.

  • Xyster says:

    Yes…looks like there was a big cir­cu­lar one on the front that they have tak­en off its hinges…

  • Nancy Fernandez says:

    I absolute­ly want the Dylan albums and any Zep­pelin, Who,Queen,Stones,The Band,love the Boss have albums but pret­ty used,I need those.I love the cool stor­age for the Vinyl col­lec­tion!

  • Anthony Silveira says:

    Put the record up for sale !! I would darn sure buy them .…..ok !

  • Anthony Silveira says:

    Put the records up for sale !! I would darn sure buy them .…..ok ! Put online as well

  • Janet Tait says:

    I would love to be the D.J. and play this vinyl 24/7 in the White House and play for the peo­ple too

  • Nancy Fischer says:

    I would love to see the entire list of what albums were found! Any chance that’s avail­able? Thank you.

  • Nicholas Guinan says:

    I’m retired but still do some I.T. work. That’s why I would ben­e­fit from hav­ing this soft­ware.

  • Mats Haglund says:

    I won­der whitch Frank Zap­pa albums are hid­den in the vault? And also intrest­ing : : who bought them? Was it per­haps Ronald Rea­gan??? Lol. Mats.

  • William says:

    Those two guys talk­ing about the records are as stuffy as a Thanks­giv­ing turkey.

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