Remember President William McKinley? Maybe you discussed the Dingley Tariff just the other day. Actually, most people remember McKinley because an anarchist shot him in the early months of his second term in office. His passing opened the door for Theodore Roosevelt. Countless hours of public television programming followed.
In real time, McKinley’s death sparked shock and even grief. It did not spark a whole lot of pop culture, however. Even conspiracy theories, one of the Republic’s largest natural resources, remained quiet on McKinley’s assassination. But “White House Blues,” a song about the event, emerged from the old-time songbook to become a string-instrument, and then a bluegrass, standard. Everyone and his brother recorded one of the many versions of the song.
Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers first put “White House Blues” on record in 1926. Bill Monroe wrote a more famous version. He often performed it at his venue in Brown County, Indiana.
UIP author Neil Rosenberg saw him do it more than once, as he recounts in his new book Bluegrass Generation. He also learned the story behind the song:
What made “White House Blues” interesting to me as a folklorist was that if you looked for it in books, Smith’s bibliography based on published folksong canons showed it had been collected from oral tradition only once. Records told a different story: his discography listed four records. And that list didn’t include Monroe’s–Bill had recorded it after The Anthology was published. In this case, commercial records documented tradition more fully than the scholars.