Sunday, September 15, 2013

Little Boxes: a Brief Visit to Mid-20th Century America

The Grateful Dead in Daly City, May 1, 1967. © 1967 Bob Seidemann. Used by permission. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same…” © 1962 Schroder Music, words and music by Malvina Reynolds One day in 1962 Malvina Reynolds and her husband, Bud, were driving from Berkeley, where they lived, down to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she was to perform at a Quaker retreat. Their route took them by Daly City, where new housing tracts were being built. Malvina saw those houses and told Bud that he needed to drive because she had to write a song, and she did – “Little Boxes.” Pete Seeger soon recorded “Little Boxes,” and, miraculously, it became a radio hit in 1963. Miraculously because Pete Seeger had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. A couple of weeks ago I ran into a young man who said, “I don’t like that song. I don’t think it’s right to judge someone for the house they live in. Maybe that’s the only house they can afford.” I applaud this young man’s sensibilities, standing up for the common man and abhorring unjust judgments. However, his judgment of the song is based on a misunderstanding. Context is everything, and he is unaware of the context of the song, probably because it was written before he was born. To begin with, Malvina Reynolds was raised a socialist, and she stayed a socialist until the day she died. She was part of the Old Left, as it was known in the 1960s. After the intense focus of World War II we needed a new evil to fear, and the designated villain was Communism. Our former ally, Joseph Stalin, the dictator in the USSR, was now our enemy, but also we were told to fear the Enemy Within, Communists in our society. During the Depression many people who were crushed by the hard times were introduced to Communism, and Communism sounded pretty good. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” That sounds pretty sweet when you’re homeless, hungry, and unemployed, or when you’re an idealistic person of any class or age. It might even sound like The Answer. A lot of people became socialists or Communists, or sympathized with them. After the war, when Joe McCarthy fired up his Commie hunting apparatus and made Commie hunting a blood sport, many lives and careers were ruined by everything from social ostracism and job loss to imprisonment and exile for those pre-war associations and activities. Immediately after the war, the women who had done men’s jobs during the war were told to quit their jobs, get married, and raise a family. A woman’s highest calling was marriage, family, and putting her husband first in all things. There was a rebound effect to those beliefs later, but that’s another essay. One effect of the mass re-domestication of women was the Baby Boom, the huge number of children born between 1946 and 1964. With the Baby Boom came a Housing Boom, and tract housing flourished. To an America that cherished individualism, those rows of identical houses were appalling, the outward and visible sign of middle class conformity. We wanted to be recognized as our precious unique selves, but in the early 1960s social critics decried the rot of conformity: computers, automation, and our cookie cutter houses were turning us into clones and drones. Still, the houses were snapped up by people who were building their own American Dream: a house, a family, a lawn, a garage, an indoor bathroom, a golden Cocker Spaniel, a college education for the kids, the belief that every generation was meant to do better than the generation before. “And the people in the boxes all went to the university Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same…” From the socialist point of view, the universities were, like everything else, controlled by the big money people – you know, the evil rich. Professors were employees and puppets of the fat cats, turning out workers and cannon fodder to keep the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the middle class well under control. Over in my (Republican) end of society, by the way, my parents saw those same professors as Communist shills duping na├»ve students into becoming evil Commies. That was fifty years ago. What do you think? Did conformity win? Are we clones, and drones? Or did we all become (gasp) Commies? Or is the truth something else? If you google “Little Boxes” you’ll find an awful lot of socio-political commentary in which the song figures. It seems a great burden to place on a little song. I suspect that in Malvina’s mind, it was meant to be “funny, with a needle in it.” That’s how she described another of her songs, “We Don’t Need the Men,” which she felt was taken ‘way too seriously. Malvina once said to me, “You can’t say anything so clearly that someone won’t misunderstand it.” From this end of life I have to say she was right.