CAR CULTURE AND ROCK AND ROLL IN POSTWAR AMERICA
How did car culture intersect with and inspire Rock and Roll?
In 1949, General Motors introduced the Oldsmobile 88. Dubbed "Futuramic" and advertised as "the lowest-priced car with a ‘rocket’ engine," the sleek new vehicle epitomized an American fascination with speed, exploration, and space travel in the early 1950s. The Oldsmobile’s appeal was so widespread, that in 1951, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (an alternate name for Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, with whom Brenston played saxophone and occasionally sang) recorded the song “Rocket 88” — an ode to the fantasy of driving the stylish car. Many historians would argue that “Rocket 88” was the first Rock and Roll song, citing the tremendous raw energy the band brought to the music. Without question, it signaled a connection between car culture and Rock and Roll.
Cars had been part of the American experience since the early twentieth century. In 1908, Henry Ford debuted his assembly-line produced Model T. The car’s relatively low price and interchangeable parts enabled many middle- and working class Americans to own, and maintain, a car for the first time. The auto industry boomed through the 1920s, but with the onset of the Great Depression, sales began a sharp decline. In early 1942, America’s entry into World War II necessitated a complete halt in the production of domestic passenger vehicles while auto factories were reconfigured for wartime contracts. With no new models available for the duration of the war, car culture was effectively on hiatus.
After the Allied powers achieved victory in both the Pacific and European theaters, Americans were filled with a sense of confidence, optimism, and national pride at levels they had never before experienced. Additionally, because the battles of WWII had not been fought on American soil, the U.S. was in a unique position not to rebuild from the destruction caused by the war, but rather to expand. As soldiers returned home and began to buy houses and start families, suburban communities developed around cities, necessitating not only new roads, but an abundance of brand new cars to drive those roads. By the time civilian auto production resumed in 1946, many Americans had not owned a new car since before the Depression — if they had ever owned a car at all. With the postwar economy surging, car sales in the United States skyrocketed. The creation of an interstate highway system in 1956 further transformed where people lived, how they got around, who they socialized with, and how they spent their money. A rising population of teenagers, born after the war into a country enjoying an unprecedented surge of prosperity, soon forged an intense and energetic relationship with cars as they became old enough to receive their driver’s permits.
By the early 1960s, the intersection of car culture and Rock and Roll was well-established and vibrant. Transistor radios became a standard feature on many new car models, allowing increasing numbers of Americans to listen to music while on the road. Songs including Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down,” Jan & Dean’s “Surf City,” and the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” emphasized the extent to which the automobile had captured the nation’s imagination. The very act of driving had come to symbolize a new-found freedom of movement, particularly for American teenagers.
Using a selection of songs, statistics, television spots, archival films, and magazine advertisements, students investigate how the postwar resurgence of the U.S. automotive industry coincided with the rise of the teenager, the two intersecting in Rock and Roll culture.
Video pages: The Beach Boys - Fun, Fun, Fun (1964) | The Beach Boys - Little Deuce Coupe (1964) | Chuck Berry - No Money Down (1955) | Bruce Springsteen - Racing in the Street (1978) | Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats - Rocket 88 (1951) | Television Commercial for the Oldsmobile "88" (1953) | Your Permit to Drive - General Motors Photographic (1951)
Image pages: Advertisement for Ford - It's a Two-Ford Garage (1950) | Advertisement for the Ford 999 (1903) | Advertisement for the Ford Model T, version A (c. 1926) | Advertisement for the Ford Model T, version B (c. 1926) | Advertisement for the Ford Model T, version C (c. 1926) | Advertisement for the Fordmobile (1903) | Advertisement for the Oldsmobile "88" (1950) | Ford Thunderbird (1956) | Oldsmobile 88 (1949)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
Play clip of Your Permit to Drive (1951). Students should take notes on any phrases the narrator uses to illustrate the societal effects of highways, cars, and driving. Ask students:
1. Display photograph from a 1959 issue of Life magazine illustrating the kinds of goods teens purchased in the 1950s. Explain that during the postwar years (approximately 1945-1968), teenagers became a distinct demographic, with many middle-class teens enjoying more leisure time, mobility, and more spending power than previous generations of young people.
Ask class to identify any recognizable items in the photograph, making sure that the students notice the two cars near the back of the image.
2. As a class, create a list of ways that having access to a car might affect a suburban teenager’s lifestyle. List suggestions on the board. (Answers may include: cars give you the ability to travel to places where your friends hang out; the freedom to date; access to a job; space to listen to your own music; cars can be decorated or customized, etc.)
Note to teacher: If students live in an urban setting where car ownership is of less importance, ask students to imagine how having access to a car might affect the life of a teenager who does not live in an easily walkable city with access to a public transit system.
3. Distribute Handout 1: Car Culture in Rock and Roll Lyrics. Play audio clip of Chuck Berry performing “No Money Down” (1955). Explain that Chuck Berry is considered one of the founding fathers of Rock and Roll music and that many of his songs present teenage themes and life experiences, such as school, dancing to popular music, and driving. Ask students:
Explain that we are now going to look at how cars became a commodity in the lives of millions of Americans, beginning in the early twentieth century.
4. Display 1903 and 1904 advertisements for two of the earliest Ford automobiles. Explain that cars began to appear in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because they could only be built by hand, one at a time, by highly skilled mechanics, cars were considered a luxury item, reserved only for the wealthiest Americans. Ask students:
Note to teacher: For reference, $850 in 1904 is equal to about $22,000 in 2015.
5. Display 1925 advertisements for the Ford Model T. Explain that in 1908, the Ford Motor Company revolutionized the automotive industry by introducing the Model T. Ask students:
6. Distribute Handout 2: Early Car Culture. Read aloud as a class, then ask students:
7. Explain that one of the first new cars to come on the market after World War II was the Oldsmobile 88, a model introduced by General Motors in 1949. Play audio clip of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951). Students should use the lyric handout as a guide and pay attention to the advertisement for the Oldsmobile 88 seen in the video clip. Ask students:
8. Play television commercial for the Oldsmobile 88 (1953). Explain that Mel Torme was a Pop singer with a career that began in the 1930s. After WWII, many companies began to feature celebrities in their advertising campaigns - a new idea at the time. While the music of Mel Torme helped to sell cars to adults, the teen audience of the 1950s looking for something more beat-driven and raw. Ask students:
Explain that car culture wouldn’t have had the effects it did if it didn’t also have the infrastructure to cultivate changing driving behaviors in the United States.
9. Distribute Handout 3: The Highway Act of 1956 and Statistics on Automobile Production. Read aloud as a class, then ask students:
How did the passage of the Highway Act of 1956 incentivize Americans to buy cars?
Questions for Graph A
What happens to the population of Americans aged 15-19 years just after the passage of the Highway Act in 1956? (It goes up considerably.)
Why do you think this population segment changes so drastically at this particular time? (All of the children born during the early part of the Baby Boom, which began in 1946, are starting to become teenagers.)
Questions for Graph B:
How do the rates of homeownership and car ownership change around the start of the Great Depression in 1929? (Both rates decrease.)
How does the rate of car ownership change once the United States enters WWII at the end of 1941? (It decreases again.) Why does the rate of car ownership decrease when the U.S. enters the war? (Because the auto manufacturers were not making new cars for civilians during the war.)
What happens to the rates of homeownership and car-owning households between 1945 and 1965? (They both increase). Which rate increases more? (Car-owning households goes up considerably more.)
What conclusions can we make about the relationship between homeownership and car ownership after approximately 1950? (There is a big boom in homeownership, but a much bigger boom in auto sales, suggesting that many homeowners also own more than one car.)
10. Display magazine advertisement for Ford from 1950. Ask students:
11. Play clip of “Fun, Fun, Fun” by the Beach Boys (1964) and have students follow along with the lyrics on the lyric handout. Explain that much of the Beach Boys’ music in the early 1960s portrayed a teen lifestyle centered around surfing, young romance, and driving. Clarify that the “t-bird” referred to in the song is slang for the Ford Thunderbird. Ask students:
Individually or as a class, read Handout 4: The End of Car Culture, excerpted from an article originally featured in the New York Times in 2013.
Ask students to write a short paragraph responding to the article. Briefly, how has the American teenage experience changed as a whole since the 1950s? Do you agree with the author’s claim that young people no longer value car ownership and driving?
Read “The End of Car Culture” in its entirety. Write a letter to the editor from the perspective of a teenager of driving age that either agrees with or disputes the author’s claim that young people no longer value cars or car ownership. Be sure to refer to evidence used in the article and make comparisons between the postwar era discussed in class and the values of teenagers today.
1. Play audio clip of “Racing in the Street” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1978).
In 1979, Rock critic Greil Marcus wrote the following about Springsteen's song: “[‘Racing in the Street’ is] the Beach Boys’ ‘Shut Down,’ ‘409,’ ‘Little Deuce Coupe,’ and ‘Don’t Worry Baby.’ Springsteen took the Beach Boys’ teenagers with their easy, obvious freedom, and dumped fifteen years on them; he made them grow up.”
Write an essay that discusses how Bruce Springsteen presents the car as a symbol in “Racing in the Street.” (Students should use lyric handout as a guide.) In addition to analyzing the imagery and mood of Springsteen's song, your essay should respond to Marcus’ quote and compare and contrast with the song “Little Deuce Coupe” or another one of the Beach Boys songs mentioned above.
2. Students will conduct independent research into how the “space race” - a historical period during which the United States and the U.S.S.R. competed to be the first country to land on the moon - shaped U.S. automotive design and car culture. Write an essay examining how America’s fascination with space travel and jet propulsion technology affected the way we designed, drove, sold, and thought about cars during the postwar era.
3. Students will research a driving-related song of their choice. Write a short essay discussing how the song relates to and expands upon the materials discussed in class, if and how it references any specific car models or driving-related social activities (if applicable), as well how the song illustrates the teenage idea of having a car. Students may select a song from the following list or choose another song with the teacher’s approval:
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.