Biden’s ‘record player’ just 1 of his vintage references

Joe Biden’s suggestion that parents leave a record player on to teach their babies better vocabulary was a head-scratching (needle-scratching?) moment in Thursday’s debate.

But it was hardly the first time the 76-year-old Biden has busted out a vintage reference that reveals his age and leaves some in the audience in the dark.

Famous for his off-the-cuff storytelling, the former vice president regularly goes deep in the vault to pull out characters and events known primarily to a people of a certain age. Ever heard of Henry Carr? How about a Jerry can?

The debate about Biden’s age has large focused so far on his capacity, but it may be that his cultural frames of reference pose an equally vexing issue. Aides dispute the idea, saying it’s just Joe being Joe and hardly a sign that he can’t connect with younger voters. One joked Friday that thanks to hipsters, some old things are new again. “You don’t know about the vinyl vote?” adviser Symone Sanders told CNN.

Still, if you need some explanation of Biden’s old-school riffs, keep reading.



BIDEN: “Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words.”


This was part of Biden’s answer to a question about inequality in schools and what Americans can do to repair the legacy of slavery. He spoke about spending more money on the country’s poorest schools, giving teachers a raise and having social workers help parents.

He then suggested that parents “play the radio” and “have the record player on at night” so their child can hear words and learn, suggesting that a child from “a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken” by the time school has started.

Record players designed for listening to vinyl records largely fell out of popular use in the 1980s with the introduction of CDs. In the era of online music streaming, vinyl and record players have become a vintage specialty item.

Biden’s suggestion that families turn on their record player or radio appears to be a reference to what’s known as the “word gap,” the concept that well-off children hear far more words before starting school than poor kids. It’s based on a landmark but hotly debated 1995 study that found poor children hear a fraction of the words their wealthier peers do, adding up to about 30 million fewer words by age 3.

The research led to efforts to close the word gap, including one championed by the Obama administration. But even there Biden seems a bit off the mark. The aim was to encourage parents talk to their children more, not to encourage children to watch more televisions — or listen to record players.



BIDEN: “I remember one time, a guy, a great athlete, an all-state athlete; anyway, I won’t get their names. They were great athletes. They went on to do great things in college too, including one named Spencer Henry, who actually beat Henry Carr, who used to hold the world record.”


In July, Biden was talking to a predominantly African American group of high school students in New Orleans, recalling his lifeguard days in Wilmington, Delaware, and the black teenagers he befriended. Among them was Spencer Henry, a Delaware state champion sprinter in the early 1960s. Biden dropped the reference to Spencer beating Carr as if the latter ought to be as familiar as Michael Jordan or Serena Williams.

Carr was an icon of the mid-60s. Nicknamed “The Gray Ghost,” he won two gold medals in the 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo and went on to play in the NFL. His football career ended in 1969.

At the same event in New Orleans, Biden told the teenagers a story about a friend who wanted to borrow a “Jerry can.”

“You know,” Biden added, “a big five-gallon can.” The term was given to metal fuel cans, and named for the term allies gave to German soldiers in World War II, who commonly used the receptacles.



BIDEN: “All of a sudden, ‘Along Came Jones,’ as that old song goes. Along came Trump,” Biden told a group of Democrats in Las Vegas in July.

“Just like what happened in my generation. My generation was dropping out. My generation, in the late ‘60s, when I was graduated from school, said ‘No, no. Go to Haight-Ashbury. Drop out. Trust no one over 30. Don’t be engaged.’”


In this salad of 50- and 60-year-old pop culture references, Biden was riffing on a late 1950s R&B tune and the counterculture a decade later.

“Along Came Jones,” was a 45 — a single — on the long-defunct ATCO label that barely charted after its release in 1959, when Biden was a sophomore in high school. He used it as a segue to the defining moment for voters today, the election of President Donald Trump.

But then Biden goes on with a litany of references to the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, when Biden was in college and law school.

“Dropping out” was a reference to psychedelic therapy advocate Timothy Leary, the late University of California-Berkeley psychologist who urged the young in 1966 to “Turn on, tune in and drop out,” chiefly with the help of LSD.

Haight-Ashbury was the symbolic center of the movement, a corner of a low-rent San Francisco neighborhood where thousands of aimless youth flocked for community, but often found instead poverty and drug addiction. An up-and-coming band, The Grateful Dead, was a regular act in neighborhood basements.

Though generations removed, Biden was connecting that time of distrust in the government fed by growing opposition to the Vietnam War and the often violent clashes of the civil right movement to today, with widespread doubt in Trump’s truthfulness and increasing acts of race-motivated violence.


This story has been corrected by deleting the reference to Ken Kesey as author of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip,” which was written by Tom Wolfe.