The old old thing

You'd think there was a law or something. Should you happen to be in charge of the homes section of a daily newspaper, and should you happen to assign a piece about, God help you, stucco, you'll likely get a story back referring in some way to "Little Boxes," the most famous song written by late Berkeley singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds:

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes all the same

Not much of a legacy there, to have a wry commentary on postwar suburban conformity turned, ironically enough, into embellishment for a story on making your home conform to design standards. Reynolds died of kidney failure in 1978, so she didn't live to see much of that transformation, which appropriately enough happened as the folk tradition morphed from a showcase for worldly wisdom and righteous protest into self-involved and overearnest singer-songwriter-ing--a sad, slow slide into irrelevance you might call the Jackson Browne Syndrome. Graced with a quick wit, an almost stubborn optimism, and an interest in being both specific and universal, Reynolds had a prolific career that was a lesson in what should've worked during the folk-music revival of the '60s. Like her contemporaries, Reynolds was topical, yanking many of her lyrical ideas straight from the San Francisco Chronicle, but she was also funny and a fine writer of children's songs. Her approach to some extent isolated her from the likes of more notorious folkies like Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan, whose severe spite and aloofness were often woven deep into their music.

"Simplicity," says Pete Seeger of Reynolds' main strength as a songwriter. "As with Woody Guthrie, simplicity. 'Little Boxes' and 'God Bless the Grass' are so supremely simple, it's extraordinary--they hit the mark in all sorts of places. You might consider that a very simple song is like a basketball backboard. It bounces back new meanings as your life's experiences are bounced against it. That's why a simple old spiritual, some 150 years after some cotton-picking slave wrote it, is now world-famous."

Born at the turn of the century in San Francisco, though she lived most of her life in Berkeley, Reynolds began her music career in 1947, chasing down Seeger at a Los Angeles hootenanny. "She said, 'I'd like to try doing what you do, making up songs and singing them,'" Seeger recalls. "And I said, 'Well, you don't get rich, but you meet the best people in the world.' And I thought to myself, 'Gee, she's kind of old to get started.' I was 28, and she was 47, 19 years older than I was. I had a lot to learn, because in the next 25 to 30 years, she just turned out one great song after another."

If Reynolds is still remembered today, it's due in large part to Seeger, who has routinely performed her songs. Three of them--"Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter," "From Way Up Here," and "Little Boxes"--were part of the set for his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, and "Little Boxes" is still often mistakenly attributed to him. Joan Baez and Judy Collins scored modest hits with Reynolds' protest songs ("What Have They Done to the Rain" and "It Isn't Nice," respectively), and her music has quietly insinuated itself into the repertoires of everyone from Harry Belafonte to Charlie Louvin to Marianne Faithfull.

But many of the records Reynolds made for Folkways, Columbia, or her own Cassandra label are out of print, and until recently all but one were unavailable on CD. This year, however, marks what would have been Reynolds' hundredth birthday, and the tributes have begun pouring in: Rosalie Sorrels has finished a tribute album, No Closing Chord, set for release this summer; and Ear to the Ground: Topical Songs 1960-1978, the first of two CD collections of Reynolds' songs compiled by Sorrels, was recently released on Folkways.

Sorrels grew up in Salt Lake City, and as Reynolds chased down Seeger in 1947, Sorrels chased down Reynolds after moving to the Bay Area in 1967. "Malvina went out of her way to reach young people and open their heads up," says Sorrels, who now lives outside Boise, Idaho. "She used to do that a lot--she tried to find out what they thought and reach across that stretch of time. I was 33 years younger than Malvina, and I took it as a great gift that she would befriend me." Like Seeger, Sorrels made Reynolds' songs a regular part of her sets, though getting a high-profile collection of Reynolds' songs released was a long time coming. "I've been trying to get somebody to let me do this for 10 years, and nobody thought it was commercially viable," Sorrels says.

The 23 songs collected for Ear to the Ground present a performer who doesn't neatly fit into our inherited idea of what a folk singer should be. First is Reynolds' voice: big, brassy, time-worn, and not always on key. Nobody would mistake Malvina Reynolds for any sort of vocal stylist; one early critic said Bob Dylan's voice sounded like a cow stuck in a fence, but Reynolds' isn't even that distinguished--she sounds merely grandmotherly, and when she sang "The Little Mouse," based on a true story of a mouse shutting down the Buenos Aires banks and stock exchange by gnawing through the computer wires, she pronounces the name of the city "Buh-way-nuss Eye-reez." Yet it's that aw-shucks voice-of-the-common-people approach that let her--in her mid-70s at the time--get rousing applause with the song's key line: "Hooray for the little mouse / That fucked up the clearinghouse!"

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Athitakis

Latest Stories