Music as Currency

November 28, 2008 at 11:00 am 10 comments

I admit it, I’ve got a collection of state quarters. I started collecting them in 1999 when the US Mint stated issuing five per year as a part of its Statehood Quarter Program.  That was almost ten years ago. This past weekend, while preparing to start a load of laundry, I found number 49 (Alaska) in my pile of change.  Hawaii is the only one I’m still missing.  I’ll move past my first realization, which was that I started dating my wife the year these quarters started being released, and towards something more musicological:

As anyone who has handled American currency over the past decade knows, each state commemorates itself in a different way.  Images and slogans on these coins range from their state motto, flower, bird, etc., to something of geographical or historical significance.  Mississippi has a magnolia, North Carolina has a biplane at Kitty Hawk, and South Dakota has Mount Rushmore.

Three states have music-related quarters: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana.


According to the US Mint, the Kentucky “design shows a side view of the famous Bardstown home [atop Federal Hill] where Stephen Foster wrote the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”


According to the US Mint, the three stars and instruments on the Tennessee quarter represent the state’s three distinct regions: “The fiddle represents the Appalachian music of east Tennessee, the trumpet stands for the blues of west Tennessee for which Memphis is famous, and the guitar is for central Tennessee, home to Nashville, the capital of country music.”


According to the US Mint, “The trumpet on the [Louisiana] coin is a tribute to the state’s heritage of jazz music, a genre heard and played by millions of enthusiasts around the globe.  Jazz was born in New Orleans over a hundred years ago, a combination of elements from blues, ragtime, and marching band music.  A multitude of musicians propelled jazz from New Orleans’ French Quarter onto the world stage, making the style a dominant force in 20th Century music.”

To my knowledge these three coins represent the first and only time music has appeared on circulating currency in the United States.  While I enjoy the fact that they include music, these quarters make me uneasy for two musicological reasons.  The first is iconographic, the second is nationalistic.

To the best of my knowledge the tubing on both trumpets is impossible.  With Louisiana, the mouth-piece tube should be tucked behind the valves.  Tennessee is correct only in inversion, flipped over the horizontal axis.  Additionally, I saw a lot of guitars while in Nashville a few weeks ago for AMS, some even missing a string or two, but none like this. Does that middle string really require two tuning pegs?

Turning to nationalism: When the Euro began circulating at the start of 2002, every country used the same standardized banknotes–a symbol of unity.  However, each EU member country was allowed to imprint their own coinage.   As Philip Bohlmen notes in the preface to his his The Music of European Nationalism, “the nationalization of Euro coins, thus, is a concession, one trumpeted by every public announcement designed to quiet public complaints about the loss of national identity” (xvii).

In a similar way, the US quarters function like the coinage of the European Union–they allow for the individual expression of the states, which, when united as a whole, present a portrait of America.  While it may be a portrait of myths and symbols, these 50 coins offer a sense of what lies beyond the figure heads and monuments of our paper money.  Let’s look at one music-related example:

As noted above, the state song of Kentucky, “My Old Kentucky Home,” was written by Stephen Foster.  When it was officially adopted as such in 1928 they also officially cleansed: The word “darkies” was replaced by  “people” in the first verse.  Now when it is sung, at internationally broadcast events such as the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, we hear:

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,

‘Tis summer, the people are gay;

The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom

While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor

All merry, all happy and bright;

By’n by hard times comes a knocking at the door

Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!

Weep no more my lady.

Oh! Weep no more today!

We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home

For my old Kentucky home, far away.

I don’t want to get into a debate here about Foster, the song, or the identity politics of either, other than to highlight, as Ken Emerson did in his 1997 biography on Foster that “all the facts point to Uncle Tom’s Cabin rather than Federal Hill as the inspiration for ‘My Old Kentucky Home.'” (Doo-Dah!, 190)  Though he does not refer to it, his evidence here is likely the fact that the song is titled “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night” in Foster’s sketchbook.

So, what we have here are a two quarters with unplayable instruments on them (the trumpets and guitar) and another that promotes the false origins of a state song (the Bardstown mansion atop Federal Hill) that ultimately functions as a nostalgic look at slavery.

What sort of nationalistic vision of American music is transmitted by such an assemblage?  Not one that I feel particularly inspired to embrace.

However, there is hope:  An additional year of commemorative quarters, incorporating The District of Columbia and the five US Territories, will offer six new designs in 2009.  The first one to be issued will be Washington, D.C., featuring none other than Duke Ellington:


Ellington becomes the first actual musician to be featured on US currency (a bit of back story).  It is also the metaphoric other side of the coins discussed above.  While this is admitidly a rather generalized statement, I must close with another admission: I feel better about the combined image of all the coins in my collection knowing that this one will join it soon.

Entry filed under: musicology, Ryan Raul Bañagale. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Zoe Lang’s Guest Blog: Laying Down the Ground Rules Graduate Student Music Conferences


  • 1. John  |  November 28, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    You’re right on when you say that these coins are really a portrait of “myths and symbols.” The issue of music and musicians on coins is similar to the issue of music and musicians on stamps (of which there have been many). Patricia Schroeder’s “Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture” has a good discussion of the controversy surrounding the representation of Robert Johnson on a postage stamp.

    And I sympathize with your lamenting of the incorrect or unplayable representation of instruments. As a saxophonist, I always laugh when I see saxes drawn or painted with the hand positions reversed or with the bell getting in the way of being able to play the lower set of keys. Even with photographs, newspaper and magazine editors will often invert the picture so that it faces the direction they would like: for example, with the bell pointing toward the middle of the page. They seem not to realize that this messes up which hand goes on top.

    Also, while I am certainly a huge admirer of Duke Ellington, he doesn’t really strike me as someone closely identified with Washington D.C. Did he live there after 1923? I understand why the people of D.C. would want to stake a claim to Ellington, one of the most respected figures in all of American music (if not in American culture). But I would have gone for someone a bit more closely associated with D.C., someone like Chuck Brown. But maybe there’s a rule against putting a living person on a coin, as there apparently is for stamps? Anyway, when you play a track by Louis Armstrong on Rhapsody, one of the little information tidbits that pops up on the side says: “The musical father of our country, Louis Armstrong should be on the American one-dollar bill.” So while that will probably never happen, it is cool that Ellington will get to be on the quarter.

  • 2. pmg  |  November 28, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Great post ryan. Incidentally, England for a long time featured Elgar on the £20 note. Just recently he was replaced by a portrait of Adam Smith–talk about base winning out over superstructure!

  • 3. Matt  |  November 29, 2008 at 12:11 am

    When I think of music and American currency (which is often), another musician comes to mind: Benjamin Franklin! Composer, inventor of the glass harmonica, and, according to some Web site, no stranger to the viola da gamba. But more important to this post, he’s been the face of the $100 since 1914 (and was even on the half dollar for a while). Sorry to burst your bubble, Ryan, but he beats out the great Duke Ellington by almost 100 years as, perhaps, the first legitimate musician on U.S. currency.

  • 4. danblim  |  November 29, 2008 at 12:28 am

    Years of art history have inured me to many issues of iconographic misrepresentation. I think what troubles me more about the Kentucky coin is not just the misrepresentation (which I do find unsettling, far more than the incorrect instruments), but the distance between the image and practice. With Louisiana and Tennessee, the coin infers a sense of locality via music, the sense that this music is a tradition residents are aware of. In Kentucky’s case, it’s just a song title. Tennessee implies performance, and what’s more, a rich diversity of it. Kentucky, a song with its name. Just seems vain.

    I really wanted Kansas’s quarter to be blank. Flat and empty, evocative of my home state.

  • 5. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  November 30, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    I’ll have to check out that article on Robert Johnson, John. Although Ellington left DC early in his career, the city still claims him as a native son. And as Mark Tucker’s book shows, a city that had a lot to do with shaping his approach to music both as a performer and business man. There are certainly many other musicians (living and dead) that they could have selected (Henry Rollins anyone?), but I think Ellington’s selection fits in better with the overall image that the coin series is attempting to put forward.

    PMG: Thanks for the Elgar bit. Is there a running list anywhere of musicians on currency? I looked around, but couldn’t find one other than the 3-4 examples in Bohlman’s book..

    Matt: Point taken, even if your post is a bit fictitious. You obviously spend more time around $100 bills than I. 😉 I don’t think we can count Ben Franklin as a musician in this case, however, because he wasn’t selected to be on the bill for his musicality. If he was, he’d be featured with his lead-poisoning-inducing device.

    You get pretty close to your vision of the Kansas state quarter with the Wyoming one, Dan. I don’t even want to get started on that one. I like your phrase “locality via music” and agree with you completely.


  • 6. Johnnybluenote  |  February 24, 2009 at 11:50 am

    An interesting post which I found informative. However, I
    wondered about whether or not Duke is the first musician on US
    currency. Limting my scope to just US coins, I called the US Mint. An hour or so later, I received an email from the historian at the US Mint indicating that, in fact, Duke is NOT the first musician on a US coin. The Cincinnati Music Center 1936 Commemorative Half Dollar
    featured Stephen Foster. There are other Medal Coins (mostly
    Congressional Gold coins) that have featured musicians like Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Fred Waring, Harry Chapin, and Frank Sinatra.

  • 7. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  February 24, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks for the additional info, Johnnybluenote. Perhaps I should amend the post to say Duke is the first musician on regularly circulating US currency.
    If anyone has a Hawaii quarter, I’m still trying to get my hands on one!

  • 8. jblattnerNYC  |  January 10, 2010 at 10:29 am

    This is quite random, but the bicentennial quarter has a colonial drummer on it. Does this count as a “music coin” as the ones above do? By the way, I purchased every coin mentioned on this page in silver graded by PCGS (except the stephen foster half, that goes for like $250), the United States should do more to commemorate its musical legacy.

  • 9. Ellen M  |  September 16, 2010 at 8:49 am

    I really liked the article but I wonder why I hadn’t noticed this myself as a musically-obsessed coin-collection-accomplice (I do it for my father 🙂 ). I imagine that the musical references did not strike me because they do not resonate with my particular musical tastes and understandings, which gets me thinking, what is America’s music? and what music is truly American? I know that there are myriad responses, but I think the criteria people used and the points of contention would be most interesting.
    …I can’t help but think of Brazil as a case study: a country where music is one of its chief exports today, samba, for instance, was formerly censored because it was thought to be in opposition to the country’s goals for national identity.

  • 10. group music  |  February 17, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I wish I would have located your web-site quicker! I had about 25% of what I was looking for and your website has that, and the rest of what I had to have to complete my research. Thank you and keep up the good work!


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