Truman and the Missouri Waltz

Wes Franklin
mug shot

I recently read an interesting article that stated Missouri native and US President Harry S Truman didn’t actually like our official state song, “The Missouri Waltz”. 

According to the article, which was published online by the Truman Library, it was really a matter of burn out. The song was played in his honor at the 1944 Democratic National Convention when Truman got the nomination for vice-president - and he constantly heard the melody after that, wherever he went. 

“I just got tired of it,” Truman is quoted as saying. “After all, they played it 30,000 times or more during that 1948 presidential campaign.” 

There is a story about how in 1962 Truman was a guest of honor at a private dinner at a hotel. He got up to answer the call of nature and the orchestra in the main ball room started playing the Missouri Waltz. Truman remarked to a friend, “It's getting so you can't go to the men's room anymore without them playing the song.” 

He also purportedly said in one television interview, when asked about the song, that “I don’t give a damn about it, but I can’t say that out loud because it’s the song of Missouri.” 

Now this is just from one article, but they use several sources to back their claim, and it does come from the Truman Library itself, of course, so that lends some credibility to it. 

Also, according to one Missouri state history published in 1986, the Truman White House released the following statement when questioned about the President’s feelings about the Missouri Waltz: “President's attitude towards the song? He can take it or leave it. Is it really his favorite? No. Does he play it often? No. Is Margaret ever heard singing it? No. What is the President's reaction to song's adoption by Missouri as state song? See answer to first question.”

The melody of the Missouri Waltz comes from another ragtime song called The Graveyard Waltz, which was composed and performed by native Missourian Lee Edgar “Jelly” Settle. However, the credit seems to have been robbed from him. Fellow composer John Valentine Eppel heard Settle play the melody. Eppel then claimed it as his before apparently turning it over to composer Frederick Knight Logan, who rearranged the melody and sold it to Forster Publishing Company of Chicago. Forster hired James Royce Shannon to write the lyrics and in 1914 the sheet music for “The Missouri Waltz” was published. The only Missourian involved in it seems to have been the original melody composer, Lee Edgar Settle, and I doubt he ever made a penny off it. 

The Missouri Waltz became our official state song in 1948. The original lyrics are about a black woman rocking her child to sleep with a song about her memories as a child in Missouri. Or at least that’s how I read them. The 1914 lyrics are actually politically incorrect by today’s standards and they have been revised. 

As to the melody, I rather like it - though if I heard it everywhere I went like Harry S Truman did I might get tired of it too. 

-Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News and sometimes for The Aurora Advertiser.