Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


Rock ’n’ Roll Heroes: A Letter to President Eisenhower

Following World War II, the United States experienced three booms that transformed her culture: an economic boom, a technological boom, and a "baby boom." Increased productivity by GIs returning to civilian work triggered a new affluence and a reduced average workweek. This wealth and leisure time, in turn, created a demand for recreational activities. Traditional forms of diversion, such as concerts and theater, could accommodate only a limited number of people. Enterprising businessmen pushed the development of new technologies with applications in entertainment. Columbia Records developed the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing (LP) vinyl disc, which was soon followed in the LP field by RCA, which introduced the smaller 45 rpm record. When LPs were introduced in 1948, no company was mass-producing equipment capable of playing them; yet within a few years, high-fidelity and stereophonic sound could be heard on the popular "hi-fi" and "stereo" phonographs. Even more popular than the new sound systems were television sets. In 1947 fewer than 10,000 sets were privately owned, but ten years later, 40 million sets were in use in the United States.

These technological advances brought entertainment to millions. By the 1960s, 179 million Americans were absorbing this mass culture. Significantly, 30 million of them had been born in the previous decade, 1950-60. The "baby boomers; born into a prosperous era, had money to spend and were encouraged by television and radio advertisers to do so. Television also brought the newest in fashion, sports, and music to young viewers across the country. As the oldest of the baby-boom generation reached adolescence, record sales skyrocketed, Since the mid-1950s, the boomer generation has spent billions of dollars on the music of teen romance and youth rebellion that it considers its own—rock ’n’ roll.

Rock ’n’ roll began as the rhythm and blues music of urban black America. In the years of segregation, R and B, considered unfit for commercial white radio, was played only on black radio stations manned by black disc jockeys, or in segregated theaters. It was rated separately from the rest of popular music. All of this changed in 1951 when Alan Freed of Cleveland decided to share his enthusiasm for Fats Domino, the Drifters, and other black artists. On his radio show, "Moondog’s Rock and Roll Party," Freed played recordings by black artists. America’s youth liked this new sound and clamored for more. White artists responded to the demand and, in 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets’ "Shake, Rattle and Roll" became the first rock ’n’ roll record to hit the Top Ten. Soon, each Saturday afternoon, 20 million American teenagers tuned in to Dick Clark’s "American Bandstand" television program to see such artists as Chuck Berry and Pat Boone and to learn the latest dance steps.

In 1955 a young truck driver paid $4 to Sun Record Company to cut a personal record as a birthday gift for his mother. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Record,heard the record and immediately signed the Mississippian to a contract. Over the next two years, Elvis Presley’s "Hound Dog;’ "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Heartbreak Hotel" earned him a million dollars. He could not read music and did not compose his own hits, but he had a pleasing voice and, in the opinion of many adolescents, sex appeal. His 1956 appearance on television (above the waist only) drew loud protests (one critic called it "a strip-tease with clothes on") but also brought fame and instant success. By 1959, 21 of Presley’s records had sold more than a million copies each. He was not the first enter-miner to attract massive adulation (Frank Sinatra had been the bobby-soxers’ heartthrob in the 1940s). Although Presley’s record sales have fallen before "Beatlemania" and "Jacksonmania," he remains to many "The King" of rock ’n’ roll.

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In 1958 Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army, where his regular enlisted man’s haircut triggered hysteria among many of his youthful admirers. The document reproduced here is a March 1958 letter from three concerned fans to President Eisenhower, from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

Teaching Suggestions

1. Introduce the document by placing it in the foregoing context for the students. Discuss the contents of the document and ask students to hypothesize how the letter was treated by the White House. Have students write a letter in response to this request as if Eisenhower were writing it.

2. Ask students to interview adults about their recollections of the early years of rock ’n’ roll. Students may want to start with parents and teachers and reach out to local disc jockeys and record store managers.

3. Discuss with students the current registration law. Pose to them the problem of whether artists should be exempt from military service or should be given special assignments if required to serve in the Armed Forces. The format for this discussion might be a debate between spokespersons for each side.

4. Ask students to select a matter of personal concern and write a letter about it to a public official. Work on revisions as needed, then review the final copy when it is turned in with a stamped envelope addressed to the official involved. Mail all letters. Later you may want to have students share and discuss responses to their letters.

5. Assign oral reports with audio and/or visual components under the theme of Heroes of Youth Culture. Subjects might include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, the Beatles, or Michael Jackson. Students should investigate what their artistic accomplishments have been, why they became popular, what impact they have had on popular culture, and how they might be viewed in the future. Students could be expected to locate samples of these artists’ work, to integrate the samples into their presentations, and to analyze the implications and meaning of the samples.

6. Assign students to investigate selected aspects of rock ’n’ roll in music history. Students may wish to examine the effects of segregation on music; how traditional gospel, hillbilly, and ballad music have been adapted to rock ’n’ roll; or how technology from LP to video has changed popular music. Students may present their research in the form of a paper or oral report.

Note: Bye-Bye Birdie, a musical stage show and movie, is the fictionalized account of Presley-mania. Reading the script or attending a film or stage performance would serve as a delightful enrichment activity or culminating exercise for the study of the youth culture of the 1950s.


Berkin, Carol, and Leonard Wood. Land of Promise. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1983.

Bivins, Betty, Robynn Greer, Bruce Kraig, and Philip Roden, Life and Liberty.Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1984.

Curti, Merle, and Lewis Todd. Rise of the American Nation. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Haywood, Terry, and Norman Risjord. People and Our Country. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers, 1978.

Rawls, James, and Philip Weeks. Land of Liberty. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers, 1985.

Smith, Lew. American Dream. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1983.


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Chicago: "Rock ’n’ Roll Heroes: A Letter to President Eisenhower," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 188–191. Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EFDZNSZ8IEHQFHN.

MLA: . "Rock ’n’ Roll Heroes: A Letter to President Eisenhower." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 188–191. Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EFDZNSZ8IEHQFHN.

Harvard: , 'Rock ’n’ Roll Heroes: A Letter to President Eisenhower' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.188–191. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EFDZNSZ8IEHQFHN.