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

By Maney, Patrick J. | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Maney, Patrick J., Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.