By Michael Rossman, Special to the Planet
Tuesday, March 18
Since she died in 1978, if people now know of Malvina Reynolds at all
it's mostly as the writer of "Little Boxes" and "What Have They Done
to the Rain," among many memorable progressive and children's songs.
Even here, during her lifetime, she was known mainly from afar as The
Singing Grandmother of Berkeley, a screechy fountain of song for
noble, poorly funded causes. Few looked beneath this action-costume
of a quirky, homegrown Superhero to recognize the astute sociologist
and cornucopia of life-affirming spirit at work within.
On March 23, Freight & Salvage will host an evening celebrating
Malvina's music and life, with singers Judy Fjell and Nancy Schimmel,
This brief memoir came from interviewing her shortly before her
death. "'Old age' is a set of cultural conventions," she observed,
"you can choose differently." I knew that already, of course, but
there was still a touch of magic in having her tell me so. Half my
life later, well along in choosing differently among so many of us
choosing differently now, she remains even more visible as a
"Don't push me, don't shove me!" scolds my 2-year-old, quoting that
record of kids' songs he plays all the time. He doesn't care that
Malvina's voice is as hoarse and stringy as an old crow. He knows
that everyone has their own way of singingshe probably told him this
tooand he loves her songs. And I'm glad Malvina's legacy is still
around telling our children too to stick up for themselves, as she
told us in so many ways for decades, sticking up for herself, for us.
Malvina was reborn as a maker and singer of songs during her late
forties and the 20th century. As the witchhunts gathered that left
the Left and so many of its people broken in retreat, and at an age
when most people were preparing to sign off as social discards,
Malvina began to sing. After long years of motherhood and making do
at this and that, she came to flower in her own strength and power,
offering us lessons about ageism and feminism long before we thought
to look together for them.
After taking her Ph.D. in English, Malvina had written fitfully for
years. Finally she realized how unnatural the academicized world had
become, torn from its sound, and transformed herself into
songmaker/singer to implement her conclusion. What flowed from her
thereafter took no education to understand or seemingly to write; one
had to listen thoughtfully to catch the intellectual still at work
beneath the deceptively simple words and rhymes, and to grasp her
triumph in this concealment.
Old age is a complex of cultural customs that Malvina didn't care to
adopt. Though she came to carry herself justly as an elder of the
tribe, a rare link with the past for a reborn New Left without a
sense of history, she did so largely by becoming as a child herself.
I don't mean she became a creampuffshe was an egotistical fighter
shrewd enough to develop a decent business from unlikely materials,
tough enough to take a hundred concerts a year on the road at 70. Yet
in them she remained as when she learned to sing in public, her shy
youth hidden inside the withering body as her songs' spirit hid
inside the husk of her voice.
She became as a child in a time when society and lives were coming
dreadfully apart in new ways piled upon the old, in a class uprooted
from the blood-lore of culture; and saw and wrote of our complex
condition as a child might even in her adult songs, which are marked
by their spontaneity and childlike perception, and by a richly juvenile wit.
This put Malvina in natural tune with a new wave of social activism,
in a way that few political people of her generation were able to
manage. Her connection with my generation's activism, her sense of
its legitimacy, were less ideological than metabolic. She let herself
be moved by the diverse and widening variety of our concerns as they
emerged, took them as her ownfrom civil rights to whales, from hot
rain to sugar metabolismand left in her hundreds of songs not only a
topical guide to three decades' changes of perception, but a
testament of deeper continuity. For indeed the values grounding our
explorations were implicit in the broad humanism of the Old Left, too
easily forgotten in remembering its didactic Stalinism.
Some of what she left will be sung and re-sung for a long time to
come, by our children and theirs in turnsongs slipped like pebbles
into the common stream, become polished, durable, anonymous, all
trace of where they came from gone. Only a few academics and
cherishers of history will be able to connect "What Have They Done to
the Rain?" back to its maker's inspiration by the small group of
singing Lefties who revived the folk-song movement after World War
Two. No one will remember Malvina herself as the Singing Witch of
Berkeley, cynical and faithful, dispensing blessings and judgments,
the myths of blood and purpose, in small stitches mending the torn
fabric of culture itself.
(This is the original of whatever survived cutting to be published as
"Just an Old-Fashioned Left Song" in the California Monthly 87:2,
Dec. 1976, noted in the author's bibliography as "Biographical memoir
on political singer-composer Malvina Reynolds.")
MALVINA REYNOLDS' SONGS AND STORIES
Performed by Judy Fjell and Nancy Schimmel at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 23
at Freight and Salvage. $18.50-$19.50. 548-1761.
Tickets are available through email@example.com,