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Malvina Reynolds (born as Malvina Milder on August 23, 1900, died March 17, 1978) was an American folk/blues singer-songwriter and political activist, probably best known for writing the song “Little Boxes”.
Malvina Milder was born in San Francisco to two Jewish immigrants and socialist opponents of World War I, David and Abagail Milder. Malvina married William Reynolds, a carpenter and devout communist organizer, in 1934 and had one child, Nancy Schimmel (a songwriter and performer in her own right), in 1935. She had earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and later went on to earn her doctorate there, finishing her dissertation in 1938.
Though she played violin in a dance band in her twenties, she began her songwriting career late in life. She was in her late 40s when she met Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger and other folk singers and songwriters. She returned to school at UC Berkeley, where she studied music theory. She went on to write several popular songs, including “Little Boxes,” “What Have They Done to the Rain,” recorded by The Searchers and Joan Baez (about nuclear fallout), “It Isn’t Nice” (a civil rights anthem), “Turn Around” (about children growing up, later sung by Harry Belafonte), and “There’s a Bottom Below” (about depression). Reynolds was also a noted composer of children’s songs, including “Magic Penny” and “Morningtown Ride,” a top 5 UK single (December 66) recorded by The Seekers.
Four collections of her music are available on compact disc. The Smithsonian Folkways label released Another County Heard From (Folkways 02524) and Ear to the Ground (Smithsonian Folkways 40124), and the Omni Recording Corporation in Australia issued Malvina Reynolds (Omni 112) and “Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth” (Omni 114).
A film biography, Love It Like a Fool, was made a few years before she died in 1978.
Reynolds’ most famous song, “Little Boxes” (made famous by Pete Seeger), has enjoyed renewed popularity by being featured in Showtime’s TV series Weeds. “Little Boxes” was inspired visually by the houses of Daly City, California. Nancy Reynolds, daughter of Malvina Reynolds, explains:
“My mother and father were driving South from San Francisco through Daly City when my mom got the idea for the song. She asked my dad to take the wheel, and she wrote it on the way to the gathering in La Honda where she was going to sing for the Friends Committee on Legislation. When Time Magazine wanted a photo of her pointing to the very place, she couldn’t find those houses because so many more had been built around them that the hillsides were totally covered.”
In her later years, Reynolds contributed both songs and material to PBS’s “Sesame Street” program. She occasionally appeared on the show as a character called “Kate.”
Let’s Go Dancing Til the Break of Day:
A Rememberance of Malvina Reynolds
by Nancy Schimmel, Daughter of Malvina Reynolds
My mother, Malvina Reynolds, once told me that when she was young, she would lie in bed and imagine that she was onstage, dancing, with a spotlight following her. She wanted to be a movie star, but she assumed that that would never happen, so she decided she’d be a teacher instead and work a smaller stage. Although she never actually taught except briefly as a student in college, she did reach center stage in her own way performing the songs she wrote. Malvina recorded 6 albums for adults and 3 for children and kept writing and performing until a few days before her death at the age of 77.
She was born in San Francisco on August 23, 1900. Music was always a part of her life. To wake up his children in the morning, her father would wind up the phonograph and play a record. Her parents didn’t have much money, but they saw to it that their children had violin lessons. When Malvina and her brother grew up, they both played violin in dance bands.
Malvina, who dreamt of being onstage and eventually realized that dream, was a shy person. As she herself wrote,
I was a lonely child; I can’t remember any friends in grade school except Esther. Why she picked quiet, shy me for a friend, I don’t know. She was bold, laughing, quick. She would sit back of me in school and slowly pull one hair out of my braid. Miss Geary would say, “Hit her! With your ruler!” I never would. I liked Miss Geary. I intended to be a teacher, and would be like her—a good sport….I am still shy with people. I can easily face and talk with and sing to a hundred or a thousand. But at a party, next to a stranger, I haven’t much to say.
Malvina found friends, but she didn’t often find a group she fit into:
The times I have been happiest were the rare times when I was one of a gang….I had a kind of gang when we lived on Buchanan Street [in San Francisco]. I must have been seven or eight. We would sit in the light of the street lamp in the evening on the high wooden flight of stairs, a dozen of us, and while the bigger boys played “One Foot Off the Gutter,” I would make up long stories to tell the others. I don’t remember what the stories were about, but they must have been interesting; I can remember the young voices in the evening, calling me to come out.
Malvina’s world view was strongly shaped by hearing her parents discuss politics with their friends. They were socialists, and she said that that view “always made sense” to her. They were also openly opposed to U.S. participation in the First World War, which they considered an imperialist war. In fact, on the morning of her high-school graduation exercises, Malvina was warned by a friendly teacher that she and her cousin were to be refused their diplomas in front of everybody because of her parents’ political views.
I had first come to the attention of the principal’s office with a premature women’s liberation movement on the school grounds. At noon, the boys could leave the grounds to play around on the streets and to get hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee, and pop at the little store across the street. I circulated a petition that the girls be allowed out of the yard at noon also. The answer was no. It wasn’t proper for girls to be on the street. [The girls then asked that the boys be restricted, and were told] if the school tried to restrict the boys they’d just climb the fence. Probably in the same situation now, the girls would climb the fence. Then, nothing happened except that quiet, shy me was fingered as a troublemaker.
It was while she was in high school that Malvina first met William “Bud” Reynolds, at a socialist dance. He was a merchant seaman, seven years older, handsome, and even more shy than she. He was self-educated, having left school after the eighth grade. They read poetry to each other in Golden Gate Park, but when he proposed, she refused. Encouraged by her mother, she had her sights set on college and a career. She got into the University of California at Berkeley without a high school diploma, and it was while doing graduate work in English there that she did some student teaching. She used pop songs to teach her high school students about rhyme scheme and meter, as they were not poetry readers.
Malvina found her “gang”—her compatible, accepting group—in the English Department at UCB and stayed around to get “all the degrees possible,” as she says in Love It Like a Fool, the film documentary made about her. She married someone else, and so did Bud. He ran for governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket, with the slogan, “You provide the evictions, we’ll provide the riots!” They found each other again after she was divorced, and this time she said yes.
My mother was writing her dissertation when I was little and got her Ph.D. in 1939. But it was the middle of the Depression; she was Jewish, a socialist, and a woman; and she couldn’t get a job teaching. But when the Second World War broke out, she got a job on an assembly line in a bomb factory, and Bud went to work as a carpenter in a shipyard.
My mother came from a long line of women who worked outside the home. Her grandmother ran a deli while her husband read Torah. Her own mother and father ran a naval tailor shop. When I was in the fifth grade, my mother’s father died, and she and my father and grandmother ran the shop together.
While my father worked as a carpenter and organizer and ran the family business with my mother, he also changed my diapers, and he made breakfast most mornings. He encouraged and helped my mother in her songwriting career, but he made the decisions about money. My mother wasn’t always happy with them. He died seven years before she did, and while she missed him terribly, she told me it did give her a certain satisfaction to be making her own business decisions.
Malvina had always written newspaper articles about her factory days, as well as poems, stories, and the occasional song but she didn’t begin songwriting in earnest until she was about 45. A songwriting group had formed in Los Angeles around Earl Robinson and the People’s Songs crowd (the People’s Songs Bulletin was the forerunner of Sing Out! magazine.) Her first songs were for adults. She did write “Magic Penny” early on, but didn’t think of it as a song for young children. She was writing the line “Let’s go dancing til the break of day” while I was at one of those awkward junior high dances. I’m sure she was wishing she was dancing, too (my father didn’t dance, and I was my mother’s folk-dance partner).
There were strong political statements made in many of my mother’s songs, but it was often done with humor, gentleness, and poetic images. Of course the humor and gentleness were basic to her children’s songs, but she could make points there, too. For example, her song against drug use, “It’s Up To You,” starts out whimsical, saying, “You might have been born a ladybug, you might have been born a bat”; but it gets serious eventually, when it says, “You were born a being with a mind and a voice, and the power of choice.”
Although she gradually began to write more children’s songs, Malvina was careful to point out that she didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the children’s performer and songwriter. In a workshop on children’s music that she gave at the Pied Piper Music Festival in 1977, she said,
I don’t think of myself primarily as a writer of children’s songs. In fact, I tend to avoid that title, because the first thought is, you know, this nice old grandma who makes cookies and sings for kids, and that’s not my character at all. I have a very acid edge toward many aspects of modern life, and I’m pretty outspoken about it. I don’t mind crossing swords with people when I disagree with them, and I’m not your nice old grandma. However, I always make it clear that the reason I have this sharp cutting edge is because I do care for people. I care about children, and I think the world is ripping them off, taking away their natural environment and much more than that—the natural progression of their tradition—and leaving them stripped, uneasy, uncomfortable, and in deep trouble, and it’s because of that that I’m so sharp.
Julie Thompson, producer of several of Malvina’s albums, interviewed her on the radio in Los Angeles in 1977. In answering a question about children writing their own songs, Malvina said,
Now, the spoken voice has rhythm and a kind of preliminary…melody line, and that’s why we have national music, because the music takes its rhythms and tunes from the spoken language. That’s why it’s so hard to translate songs….When children are playing or talking, they’re often singing, and you can pick up on something like that and turn it into a song. They love it, but they do it themselves. They’ll say, “Ha-ha, look what you did!” and there’s a little song, or, “Maaama—I don’t want it,” and you’ve got a song.
Anything that’s said expressively and with emphasis will work, and if you let it ride on that, you’ll find they’ll be making up songs in no time at all. If we take a constructive attitude…and don’t expect them to have perfect rhythm or perfect pitch…and don’t give them the idea that they can’t do it, they will. My husband was told that he couldn’t sing. His family all had fine voices, and I guess his wasn’t as good. They used to make him shut up, and all of his life he wouldn’t sing, except when my daughter was a little bitty girl. He would sing for her, and she thought he had the most beautiful voice in the world!
In answer to a question about using traditional songs with children, Malvina said,
People don’t realize that many of these lovely, clever, funny children’s songs that have come down to us are not transmitted from parent to child, but from one generation of children to another. The younger ones hear the older ones sing the songs, play the games, and make up the instruments, and then they carry it on to the next generation. And it’s a whole world of its own.
A great many songs now are created for children by grown-ups, but I try myself to get into a purer frame of mind when I’m singing for them, in the sense that I’m trying to speak directly and not let a whole lot of overcivilizing, overperfecting, or mechanical influences get between me and the listener. So perhaps some of my songs will someday get to be part of that kind of tradition, which I would love to see happen.
Magic Penny Tribute:
Malvina Reynolds, 1900-1978
The Magic Penny Award, named after the song by Malvina Reynolds, is a Children’s Music Network tribute to people in our community who have dedicated their lives to empowering children through music. It is the intent of CMN to give this award annually, at our national gathering, to honor the lifetime achievement of someone whose work most embodies our mission. In October 1999 the first award was given posthumously to Malvina herself, through her daughter, Nancy Schimmel. Below are Schimmel’s reflections on that occasion.
Malvina Reynolds, 1900-1978
By Nancy Schimmel
Born Malvina Milder of Jewish socialist immigrant parents in San Francisco, Malvina was refused her diploma by Lowell High School because her parents were opposed to the U.S. participation in World War I. She entered UC Berkeley anyway, and received her B.A. and M.A. in English. She married William Reynolds, a carpenter and organizer, in 1934 and had one child, Nancy, in 1935. She completed her dissertation and was awarded her Doctorate in 1939. It was the middle of the Depression, she was Jewish, socialist, and a woman. She could not find a job teaching at the college level. She became a social worker and a columnist for the People’s World and, when World War II started, an assembly line worker at a bomb factory. When her father died, she and her husband took over her parents’ naval tailor shop in Long Beach, California. There in the late forties she met Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger and other folk singers and songwriters and began writing songs.
She returned to Berkeley, and to the University, where she took music theory classes in the early fifties. She gained recognition as a songwriter when Harry Belafonte sang her “Turn Around.” Her songs were recorded by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, The Seekers, Pete Seeger, and the Limeliters, among others. She wrote songs for Women for Peace, the Nestle Boycott, the sit-ins in San Francisco on auto row and at the Sheraton-Palace, the fight against putting a freeway through Golden Gate Park and other causes. She toured Scandinavia, England and Japan. A film biography, “Love It Like a Fool,” was made a few years before she died in 1978. I am writing a biography of her, and I found that in an interview by Sheila Cogan in May 1971, my mother is reported as having said:
When I give a concert I talk a great deal. I not only sing my songs, but I tell stories in back of them and I give my philosophy of life which makes it possible for me also to appear as a minister in pulpits, a godless child I—I have no religion at all except the religion of being people. I’m not against religion. I think it’s a misnomer of being human. Being human is such a groovy thing that people couldn’t believe that it belonged to them—they thought God made them.
A Note on Unitarian Connections
When Nancy Schimmel’s biography of Malvina is written, it will be fascinating to examine her view of Malvina’s religion. Already at hand are three interpretations.
First, when addressing the centennial celebration of the First Unitarian Church in Sioux City, lowa, in 1985 Dr. John Brigham quoted the second stanza of the ballad “God Bless the Grass” made famous by Pete Seeger and written by a person he identified as Malvina Reynolds:
“God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done
It moves through the ground and reaches for air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.”
A second interpretation is offered by Dr. Richard Boeke, Minister Emeritus of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley in Kensington, California, who recently wrote:
“Malvina Reynolds was a member of the UU Church of Berkeley, CA. She sang at our church services about ten times while I was minister there…She lived on Parker Street, named for Unitarian Minister, Theodore Parker (near Channing Way and a mile from the Longfellow School).
“When she led a service, Malvina would stress her new songs. She looked at each day as a newborn opportunity to be alive and create….As she wrote, ‘bury me in my overalls.’ She loved singing ‘Magic Penny’ in church.”
A third interpretation is expressed in these lines by her daughter, Nancy Schimmel:
“To say Malvina Reynolds was a Unitarian might be stretching it a tiny bit. She and my father were married in the Unitarian Church in Santa Cruz. However, both my parents were raised atheist and never wavered from that mindset (nor have I). You could possibly describe my mother as a ‘Steve Fritchman Unitarian’ My parents drove from Long Beach sporadically to attend his church in Los Angeles during the McCarthy era.
“Malvina was happy to give singing sermons at UU churches around the country.”
These interpretations are reminders that the same Unitarian can be an atheist with respect to a supernatural God while, as a theist, affirming the sacred power of the world and all therein.
Finally, in her jubilant, liberal rejection of traditional other-worldly religion, Malvina wrote and sang “This World”:
“I’d rather go to the corner store / Than sing ‘Hosanna’ on that golden shore / I’d rather live on Parker Street / Than fly around where the angels meet.”
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Reynolds, Malvina and Emmy Lou Packard. The Malvina Reynolds Songbook. Berkeley: Schroeder Music Company, 1974.