From Tragedy Comes Song: the Assassination of a President to “White House Blues”

The New York Times - Saturday, September 7, 1901

In 1900, the newspapers carried the news of the day. With radio and television not yet invented, over 2000 newspapers in large cities and small hamlets wrote about the events of the day while sensational events found their way into popular vernacular via song.

Throughout the summer of 1901, Buffalo, New York hosted the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair event used to demonstrate the advances in science and technology of the time. For 25 cents, fairgoers could see marvels of America’s industrial might and the latest inventions like the X-ray machine. Each night electric lights illuminated the fairgrounds powered from Niagara Falls, some 25 miles away, via technology developed by Nikola Tesla. The fair used the theme of “commercial well-being and good understanding among the American Republics.” At the time, the City of Buffalo boasted the eighth-largest population in United States and its railroad connections allowed only a one day journey by rail for roughly 40 million people.

President William McKinley

The fair designated September 5 as President’s Day in honor of a visit by President William McKinley. The President and his wife Ida arrived in the morning amid the pomp and circumstance of an official visit, the President gave a scheduled speech followed by a military review, luncheon and multiple receptions.

President McKinley arriving at the Temple of Music on September 6, 1901

On September 6, 1901 at 3:30 p.m., President William McKinley arrived at the Temple of Music to keep an engagement to meet with the public. Prior to the event McKinley’s secretary, George B. Cortelyou asked the President to reconsider attending for security reasons. However, McKinley responded, “Why should I? No one would wish to hurt me.” Nevertheless, a movement was afoot. The year prior, King Umberto I of Italy was fatally shot by anarchist Gaetano Bresci who felt that felt that the common man needed to take matters into their own hands against perceived oppression by governments and wealthy elites.

Postcard of The Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition

A line to greet President McKinley formed. Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist born in Detroit, arrived and took his place in line. This young steel worker, with ties to Socialists, believed that the structure of the United States government aided the wealthy to exploit the poor. Czolgosz had read Socialist and anarchist newspapers for years and became disenchanted with the system further after hearing a speech by radical Emma Goldman earlier in the year. While in Chicago, eight days prior Czolgosz had read that McKinley would be attending the Exposition and thought this was his opportunity to take action. He traveled to Buffalo to carry out his plan.

Flanked by Cortelyou with protection by the U.S. Secret Service, Buffalo detectives and a squad of eleven U.S. Army servicemen, the President shook hands of the public for approximately ten minutes. Covering his hand with a white handkerchief to conceal the gun he was carrying, Czolgosz stood close to the man directly in front of him. Immediately behind him stood six-foot six-inch James Parker, an African-American waiter laid off from the exposition’s Plaza Restaurant.

Leon Czolgosz

At 4:07 p.m. Czolgosz reached the front of the line. McKinley pushed an outstretched hand towards the man. Not taking the President’s offer of a handshake, Czolgosz pointed his .32 caliber Ivor-Johnson pistol at McKinley firing twice. The first bullet grazed the President’s shoulder, but the second went through his stomach, pancreas, and kidney, and finally lodged in the muscles of his back. Parker punched Czolgosz and tackled him knocking the gun from his hand as the security forces jumped in to subdue the assassin.

The Assassination of President William McKinley - rendering by T. Dart Walker

Taken by ambulance to the hospital on the grounds of the Exposition, McKinley’s attending doctors could not find the bullet that had entered the President’s abdomen. Even though experimental X-ray technology was on site at the fair, it was not used for fear of future effects to the President’s health. Even the electric lights provided no help as they decorated the outside of the buildings, but not the inside of the operating room of the hospital. The physicians closed up the wound. For recovery, McKinley moved back to Exposition president John Milburn’s residence where the President was staying during his time in Buffalo.

On September 7, McKinley, awake and conversational, saw visitors and asked about the crowd’s reception of his speech from two days prior. However, by September 12 his health took a sudden turn as infection set in and procedures of the time were not helping the situation. After eight days of medical treatment, McKinley finally succumbed to his gunshot wounds 110 years ago today. He died September 14, 1901 at 2:15 a.m. He was 58 years old.

During the latter part of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century the blues ballad became the primary art form musicians used to tell the news of the day with song. Using a slow tempo, these sentimental songs described a narrative a protagonist, often  industrial anti-heroes like Casey Jones, John Hardy or Stagger Lee. Usually written anonymously by either African-Americans or rural white musicians, the music typically utilized the 12-bar blues structure with accompaniment from guitars and banjos.

Charlie Poole and North Carolina Ramblers

Recorded on September 20, 1926 in New York City, “White House Blues,” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, recounts the events and feelings surrounding President McKinley’s assassination 25 years later. Charlie Poole, a hell-raiser from North Carolina, sings and plays the banjo with Posey Rorer joining on fiddle and Ron Harvey on guitar. Though not a songwriter, Poole reinterpreted popular songs of the first two decades of the 20th century. Likely the song has roots in African-American string band blues. The group had already formed a following in the Carolina region playing for square dances, corn shuckings and parties. With the Victrola in vogue, the group became one of the most popular old-time string bands during the late 1920s as their records sold in large numbers.

Poole (as well as the recently deceased Wade Mainer) had a 3-finger banjo playing style, an enormously influential technique — a blend of melody, arpeggio, and rhythm — which developed later into the famous Earl Scruggs bluegrass-style. Music historians believe that his fingers on his right hand, deformed after a childhood accident playing baseball, aided Poole’s style. He likely heard pre-World War I recordings by banjoist Vess Ossman and developed his rolling playing style after working in the textile mills to make enough money to buy a quality instrument.

Harry Smith resurrected the North Carolina Ramblers version his landmark Anthology of American Folk Music released by Folkways Records in 1952. A couple of years later the song received new life as Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys recorded it as a b-side of his single “Get Up John” (Decca, 29141) released in 1954. However, many more musicians have recorded variants over the years.

In 2005, Legacy Recordings collected the works of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers into the box set, You Ain’t Talking To Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country. Over the course of three discs the package includes the sides the group recorded for Columbia between 1925 and 1931 including the first country hit “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” a song that sold over 102,000 copies. In addition, the package also includes performances by the early roots music players and singers who either influenced Charlie Poole (such as Fred Van Eps, Arthur Collins, and Billy Murray) or were influenced by him (the Floyd Country Ramblers, Uncle Dave Macon, the Red Fox Chasers).

Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers – “White House Blues”

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doc said “McKinley I can’t find that ball
From Buffalo to Washington”

Roosevelt in the White House, he’s a doin’ his best
McKinley in the graveyard he’s taking his rest
He’s gone, a long, ole time

Hush up little children now don’t you fret
You’ll draw a pension at your poppa’s death
From Buffalo to Washington

Roosevelt in the White House, drinkin’ out of a silver cup
McKinley in the graveyard he never wakes up
He is gone, for a long, ole time

Ain’t but one thing that grieves my mind
That is to die and leave my poor wife behind
I am gone long, ole time

Look-it here little children now don’t you fret
You’ll draw a pension at your poppa’s death
From Buffalo to Washington

Standing at the station just lookin’ at the time
See if I could run it by half past nine
From Buffalo to Washington

Came the train, she’s just on time
She run about a thousand miles from eight o’ clock til nine
From Buffalo to Washington

Yonder come the train she coming down the line
Blowing every station Mr. Mckinley is a-dying
It’s hard times, it’s hard times

Look-it here, you rascal, you see what you’ve done
You shot my husband with that Ivor-Johnson gun
I’m carrying you back, to Washington

Doc told the horse, he torn down his rein
He said to that horse, “You gotta outrun this train”
From Buffalo to Washington.

The doc came a-running, he take off his specs
Said, “Mr. McKinley better cash in your checks
You’re bound to die, bound to die”

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers – “White House Blues” (1926)

Flatt & Scruggs – “White House Blues”

Tony Rice & Friends – “White House Blues”

The Carter Family – “Cannonball Blues” (1936)

Woody Guthrie – “Baltimore to Washington”

John Mellencamp – “To Washington” (2004)

Download variations of the songs here.

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About Scott Allen

Music connoisseur, record collector, St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan, DJ and writer wanna-be. I write about music that moves me.
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One Response to From Tragedy Comes Song: the Assassination of a President to “White House Blues”

  1. Pingback: From Tragedy Comes Song: the Assassination of a President to … | The Simple Strings

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