Chattermailbox: FDR and Rock ’n’ Roll

Walter S. Mossberg, who writes the “Personal Technology” column for the Wall Street Journal, but whose true expertise lies in the field of music (when Chatterbox worked at the Journal’s Washington bureau, he was the only person there who knew all the words to Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid“), takes exception to this column’s assertion that baby boomers were not the first large mainstream audience to embrace rock ’n’ roll (which previously, of course, had been embraced by blacks). In an e-mail, Mossberg writes:

I agree that it’s absurd to make some sharp delineation between generations in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Clearly there were boomers who didn’t get rock music, and some members of the prior generation of teens who did get it. Early rock co-existed with pallid pop music. Nothing was as clear-cut about those days as it seems from today’s perspective.But let me tell you why I think you may have been too dismissive when you wrote, “Were the consumers who turned ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ into hit records 9 and 10 years old? Of course they weren’t. They were teen-agers who’d been born during and shortly before World War II.”As a second-year boomer (March 1947, about six months younger than Clinton), I can testify that between the ages of 9 and 13 we were very musically adept in my whitebread, spanking new suburban neighborhood in R.I. And we had allowances, and we bought rock records. It was during those years in the late ‘50s, in fact, and not the ‘60s, that many of us older boomers were first turned on to rock, began following the artists, and–defying parental wishes–began listening clandestinely to the handful of DJs who played rock ’n’ roll. And, believe me, if a city had one such DJ, that was a lot.It was during the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades for me–not high school–that I began to buy 45s and listen to people like Elvis, Little Richard, and Duane Eddy. Now, we didn’t go to any Bill Haley concerts, and older teens, with more money and freedom, probably did play a big role in all of that. But there were significant differences between most people in these two generations.Unlike our predecessors, I knew of nobody in my group in the late ‘50s who had ever listened to, or liked, people like Frank Sinatra or Perry Como. That was our parents’ music, we thought. The prior generation of teens thought folk music was the clean-cut Kingston Trio; by the early ‘60s, we were into Peter, Paul and Mary, and through them, Dylan. (When I marched on the Pentagon, PP&M were singing away on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.) They tended to like Pat Boone’s covers of Little Richard. We liked the real thing.Remember that most early rock ’n’ roll artists, including Haley and–shockingly–Elvis, had repertoires that included lots of swing-type music, or syrupy ballads or “pop” tunes, which made them transitional artists able to appeal to both generations. Early rock was crossover music that allowed the older teens to support it, until the transition stopped and it got too loud and unruly for many of them. By then, it was the ‘60s, and we boomers were the teens. So it all worked out.A terrific account of all of this (though not of the demographics per se) is in the new book Flowers in the Dustbin, by James Miller. He does a great job chronicling the early proto-rock, among other things.

Chatterbox is intrigued, but not surprised, to learn that his friend Mossberg was a-rockin’ and a-rollin’ from the age of 9. Indeed, Chatterbox finds it impossible to picture the 9-year-old Mossberg as anything other than a precocious know-it-all. The question is, how many other 9-year-olds–exempting the other kids in Mossberg’s whitebread suburban neighborhood, who no doubt fell under his influence–were buying rock ’n’ roll records? Surely not many. But Chatterbox concedes he may be wrong about this, and invites others in Mossberg’s age cohort (52, 53) to submit testimonials on this question to the Fray (to do so, click below).