FDR: Father of Rock ’n’ Roll

Chatterbox has never visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but he has it on good authority that the place contains no exhibit memorializing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s crucial role in creating a mass audience for the African-American art form known as rock ’n’ roll. When people talk about rock ’n’ roll’s crossover into mainstream white culture, the decade they’re usually talking about is the 1950s, and the person who usually gets the credit is Elvis Presley. (Click here to check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s new Elvis exhibit.) But the groundwork for the youth culture that supported rock ’n’ roll’s growth was laid two decades earlier by the Roosevelt administration.

The important role played by big government in creating teen culture is explained this month in a magazine largely owned by, of all people, the conservative presidential candidate Steve Forbes. The magazine is American Heritage, and the article, “The Rise and Decline of the Teenager,” is an excerpt from a new book by Thomas Hine called The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. Judging from the American Heritage excerpt, Hine takes the self-serving baby-boomer view that teen-age culture started to decline, oh, right around the time he ceased participating in it. The “decline” portion of Hine’s article is the sketchiest and least convincing part; perhaps he fleshes out his argument more convincingly in the book. But the “rise” portion is fascinating, and highly persuasive.

Hine’s thesis is that “teen-agers” didn’t really exist as a cohesive social group before the Depression. (The word first appeared in print in 1941, in Popular Science magazine.) But

after 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, virtually all young people were thrown out of work, as part of a public policy to reserve jobs for men trying to support families. [Here Hine might also have pointed out that a similar impetus to throw old people out of work would later lead to the creation of Social Security.] Businesses could actually be fined if they kept childless young people on their payrolls. Also, for the first two years of the Depression, the Roosevelt administration essentially ignored the needs of the youths it had turned out of work, except in the effort of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was aimed at men in their late teens and early twenties.

What did these unwanted youths do? They went to high school. Although public high schools had been around since 1821 (and prep schools had been around before then), secondary education, Hine writes, had been “very slow to win acceptance among working-class families that counted on their children’s incomes for survival.” It wasn’t until 1933 that a majority of high-school-age children in the United States were actually enrolled in high school. By 1940, Hine writes, “an overwhelming majority of young people were enrolled, and perhaps more important, there was a new expectation that nearly everyone would go, and even graduate.” When the United States entered World War II the following year, high-school students received deferments. “Young men of seventeen, sixteen, and younger had been soldiers in all of America’s previous wars,” Hine writes. “By 1941 they had come to seem too young” (1941 was also the year when Archie, the definitive comic-book teen-ager, was introduced to the world by John L. Goldwater, who died earlier this year, and Bob Montana).

Hine argues, quite persuasively, that the indulgent mass “teen-age” culture is largely the result of corralling most of society’s 14-to-18-year-olds into American high schools. The baby boom, which began in 1946, the year after the war ended, obviously fed that teen-age culture’s further expansion. But the teen culture itself–Archie and Jughead, bobby-soxer mania for Frank Sinatra, etc.–quite obviously predates the teen years of the very oldest baby boomers, who didn’t enter those golden years–15, 16–until the early 1960s.

Hine doesn’t get into this, but boomer math contradicts the boomer mythology that that it was the baby boom that first absorbed rock ’n’ roll into the mass culture. For many pop-culture historians, the Year Zero for rock ’n’ roll as a mass-cult phenomenon was 1956. That’s when Elvis recorded his first No. 1 hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” You can also make a decent case that the Year Zero was 1955, when Bill Haley and the Comets hit No. 1 with “Rock Around the Clock,” the first rock ’n’ roll record ever to climb to the top of the charts. 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. And they wouldn’t have existed as a social group if FDR–who, tragically, died before he got a chance to witness the mainstreaming of rock ’n’ roll–hadn’t invented them.

[Thanks to the Fraygrant who pointed out that an earlier version of this item erroneously stated that World War II ended in 1946. The baby boom began in 1946, but the war ended in 1945. (The returning vets needed at least nine months to create babies.)]