Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

They Sang for Roosevelt: Songs of the People in the Age of FDR

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

They Sang for Roosevelt: Songs of the People in the Age of FDR

Article excerpt

In 1936 Jack Davis was washing dishes in a Burlington, Iowa, diner for $6 a week plus board. But he really wanted to write music for a living. He had high hopes for his latest composition, "The World Has Ended (You've Said Good-Bye)," which he took to a local music store to have printed on sheet music. He put $5 down and promised to pay the remaining $20-about three-weeks worth of salary-when he picked up the printed songs. In the meantime he lost his job at the diner. The only thing he could think to do was to write the president of the United States. After congratulating Franklin D. Roosevelt on his recent reelection victory, Davis told him about the song and about losing his job, and he asked FDR for a $20 loan to pay for the sheet music. Just so the president would know that everything was on the up-andup, Davis assured the president that he could send the money directly to the music store. "I do want my song to get before the public," he explained, "and I know that if it is known by the public that it was financed by you it will sell a million copies. I am very poor and I need this so very bad." It had occurred to Davis to write the president, he explained, because he'd recently heard about an elderly black man someplace in the South who was about to lose his home when FDR personally intervened to save it for him. "So if you can't help me," Davis wrote, "then let me thank you for having helped one other in need. I hope you won't think I'm too nervy or mean for asking you for the help. I only wish I could explain how badly I need this one thing."1

Davis's is no rags-to-riches story. So far as we know, he never published his song, and he probably lived out his life in obscurity. He is nevertheless important because he exemplifies one of the most curious phenomena of the 1930s and 40s: He was one of the many Americans who either asked FDR to help them get their songs published or, more often, was inspired to write music or poetry in his honor. And they wrote in equal or greater numbers about Eleanor Roosevelt. Most of them were nonprofessionals, and many of them were barely literate.

I.

I first learned about this song-writing tendency fifteen years ago while researching a biography of FDR at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. I went to Hyde Park thinking I might model a chapter of my book on John William Ward's classic study, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age.2 From Jackson-related ballads, speeches, poems, and stories, Ward discerned a kind of national ideology, a set of ideals and myths that many Americans believed about themselves and their country. Perhaps FDR would yield similar treatment, I thought, although I wondered if there would be enough material to work with. Where, for example, would I find songs and poems about FDR? And would there be enough of them to draw any conclusions? Once in Hyde Park, however, I found that the problem was not the lack of sources, but their overwhelming abundance. FDR's papers alone contain some 53 boxes of songs and accompanying letters. Eleanor's papers contain another 83 boxes. By my estimate, that's 136 boxes and some 14,000 songs.3

Professional composers also devoted a lot of attention to FDR. Indeed, he probably inspired more commercial song writing than any other president, before or since. Published or recorded works dedicated to FDR came in all forms-orchestral pieces, polkas, fox trots, and gospel, blues, and hillbilly songs. The most popular Roosevelt song was "FDR Jones," which referred to the practice of parents naming their babies after Roosevelt. It was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, the Mills Brothers, and Glenn Miller. Irving Berlin wrote in FDR's honor "The President's Birthday Ball," while George M. Cohan portrayed FDR on the Broadway stage in the Rodgers and Hart musical, "I'd Rather Be Right." Some songs, like Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," mentioned the president only in passing. Others, such as the stunning, two-sided recording "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt" by Otis Jackson and the National Clouds of Joy, were devoted solely to FDR. …

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