Berkeley Talks: Why the 1960s song ‘Little Boxes’ still strikes a chord today

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houses form lines across a hillside

Houses stretch in lines across a hillside in Daly City — the same houses that Malvina Reynolds was referring to in her song “Little Boxes.” (Photo by David Goehring via Flickr)

“Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes made of ticky tacky. Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes all the same. There’s a pink one, and a green one, and a blue one and a yellow one. And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

“And the people in the houses all went to the university, where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same. And there’s doctors and lawyers and business executives, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

That’s the first part of the song “Little Boxes,” written by Berkeley alumna and political activist Malvina Reynolds in 1962. In the first episode of a new campus podcast — the Berkeley Podcast for Music — professor Nicholas Mathew talks with Reynolds’ daughter, Nancy Schimmel, as well as Berkeley professors Margaret Crawford from architecture, Timothy Hampton from French and comparative literature and Maria Sonevytsky from music. They discuss Reynolds’ life, music, activism and the contested politics of her most famous song “Little Boxes” — a satire of suburban conformity inspired by the 1960s housing developments in Daly City.

“…Songs, in a way, have to be simple,” said Schimmel. “They go by quickly. You can’t, you know, it’s not like a book that you can reread.”

“Clearly you, as a storyteller, songwriter, educator, have got from your mother a real belief in the power of song,” said Mathew to Schimmel. “And especially now that perhaps people on the liberal left, if I can put it that way, imagine that they’re in charge of nuance, of fact, of qualification and taking care, that’s one feature of songs — particularly songs that are easily transmissible from person to person — not only that they are easily memorable but, like all good propaganda, they, as you just said, are simple. … I suppose I want you to expand on your mother’s belief in the power of song as a political tool and not merely as some sort of beautification or prettification of politics.”

“One thing that my mother said was that she was trying to convey to people things that they already knew that didn’t know they knew or hadn’t thought about,” replied Schimmel. “So, she was trying to use lived experience in her songs.”

The Berkeley Podcast for Music is an ongoing series that features people from the campus community discussing current issues in music and sound. Upcoming episodes include a forgotten story about the CIA and laugh tracks, and another about the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest. A new episode comes out every other Friday.

Listen to the discussion about Malvina Reynolds in Berkeley Talks episode #93: “Why the 1960s song ‘Little Boxes’ still strikes a chord today.”

Malvina Reynolds sings “Little Boxes.”