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

Nicholas Mathew: This is BPM, the Berkeley Podcast for Music. My name’s Nicholas Mathew. Today, the activist and songwriter Malvina Reynolds, the former Berkeleyan who would have turned 120 this month. I’ll be talking to her daughter, the storyteller and singer Nancy Schimmel, who graduated from Berkeley in the 1950s, about Malvina Reynolds’s, life, music and politics. Then I’ll be catching up with three Berkeley professors: Margaret Crawford in architecture, Timothy Hampton in French and comparative literature, and Maria Sonevytsky from the music department.

We’ll be talking about the meaning and history of Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” — the Daly City houses satirized in perhaps her most famous song, the history of anti-suburban sentiment and the musical politics of the civil rights era.


Nicholas Mathew: How would you describe your mother, Malvina Reynolds, to a generation who may not know very much about her, perhaps to a new incoming class of freshmen undergraduates at Berkeley. Who was she?

Nancy Schimmel: Well, she was born in San Francisco. Her parents owned a small business, a tailoring shop. They made school uniforms and things like that, which at one point they lost and they became the poor relations living with relatives. Her parents wanted their kids to go to college. They hadn’t.

Nicholas Mathew: She was an English major, wasn’t she?

Nancy Schimmel: She was an English major. And being an English major, being Jewish at that time made it difficult.

Nicholas Mathew: Her parents were both immigrants from Central Europe?

Nancy Schimmel: Yes, both immigrants from Eastern Europe, actually, from what’s now Lithuania and now, I don’t know what it is, but it was Hungary at the time. And she was a socialist. Her parents were socialists. She had a record. She couldn’t get a job teaching, in the middle of the Depression. She was working in her parents shop. It started out in San Francisco and then they were doing naval tailoring by then, the fleet was stationed in the Long Beach area.

Nicholas Mathew: What kind of a place was Long Beach for immigrant European socialist Jews?

Nancy Schimmel: Well, I’ll tell you. Their home was raided by the Ku Klux Klan. And that gives you a clue. Her parents were having a fundraising party for the defense of the Scottsboro boys, who were Black youths who had been accused of raping two white women, and of course had been railroaded. And so, they were finished with the party and most everyone had gone home. There were a few people left having coffee in the kitchen, kind of, you know, the way parties go.

And then they were invaded by… when one of them opened the door to leave, these Klan people were burning a cross in the front yard and came into the house and started dragging them out. They were finally stopped. Someone called the police, and the police arrested everybody — the Klan guys and the family. They put the family in cells and left the Klan guys out in the police part because it turned out they were sheriff’s deputies from Orange County. They finally got home and well it hit the papers.

And there was a grand jury investigation. And the family was afraid that this would hurt their business that they were all living on, this was in 1932 in the Depression. And they were really living off the trade from the sailors. Well, it turned out the sailors were mostly Irish Catholics. So the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And they kept the store.

Nicholas Mathew: That’s an extraordinary story and frightening, but also with so many contemporary resonances. And I think certain elements, perhaps that people today will find surprising or be able to identify with less. The first thing I think of is what you might call “working class solidarity.” It seems as though at that time there really was, through trade unions and various other kinds of formal and informal forms of association, a sense of class consciousness.

Nancy Schimmel: At that same time, my father, that same year was organizing the Ford hunger march in Detroit. And I think it was, it was still a struggle then. But there was this sense that the unions were a place to go for help.

Nicholas Mathew: I think also perhaps another element of it that seems very unfamiliar today is the presence of communist and socialist politics as a kind of mainstream, or at least marginal mainstream within a working class politics. And we tend to think of communism as almost a fiction, perhaps a bugbear dreamt up by McCarthyism in the ’50s and not a reality of the way that people wanted to transform their lives or dreamt of transforming their lives. How important was communism, the communist party, American socialism — these histories that aren’t written very much — in your parents’ lives?

Nancy Schimmel: They were both. I think the communists more active, both in the labor movement, and what wasn’t the civil rights movement yet. But in supporting, well, it’s a really complicated thing, because a lot of the unions were segregated. The communists were in favor of unions and in favor of racial justice.

Nicholas Mathew: That’s a really interesting, complex part of the history of left-wing politics in the United States. I want to get back to that in a minute. Something that you said I’d really like to pick up on, just as part of the story, is the that this is all pre-civil rights era we’re talking. And yet, your mother ended up being really a central cultural figure in the civil rights movement, I think one could say. How did her experience as an activist and her involvement with the labor movement and radical politics before the civil rights era inflected her particular take on it and her involvement with it?

Nancy Schimmel: When you have been slapped black and blue by a Klansmen when you’re 32, you know what side you’re on. So she didn’t get involved in the organizing part of the civil rights movement. She wrote a few songs. Of course she wrote “It Isn’t Nice.” She also wrote one “What’s Going On Down There.” So, she was very aware of what she was organizing at that time. She was in the peace movement. So was I. And of course she wrote “What Have They Done to the Rain” — about the nuclear testing, which was making people sick and killing people.

Nicholas Mathew: You also went to Cal? As a psychology major, I believe. And graduated in the mid-’50s? So in a real sense, you are much more of the civil rights generation than your mother. So how do you think your experience of the free speech movement and the civil rights movement was shaped by your mother’s experience and also by your mother as a increasingly prominent figure these culturally within that movement?

Nancy Schimmel: Well, I started at Cal in ’52 and she was not well known yet. She was known in left circles. She had written songs for the Henry Wallace campaign. She was in People’s Songs. So she was known, you know, on a certain level, but she didn’t have a hit until Belafonte recorded “Turn Around.” She was not well-known at the time that she went back to Cal to get some music classes.

Nicholas Mathew: What year was that?

Nancy Schimmel: It was ’54 I think. I started in ’52 and we overlapped a little bit. And what happened was she was putting out her first song book, Song In My Pocket, published by the California Labor School, which was of course the left-wing entity in San Francisco. And Lou Gottlieb was helping her with writing down the music because she couldn’t. It’s complicated writing music! And she didn’t have all the details there. So he was helping. And he said, “I’m not going to help you with this again. You’re going to go to school and learn how to do this yourself.”

So, she did. She went back to Cal and she has a story she tell us about that, which is that she was signing up for classes and the TA who was helping her said, “I’m sorry, I can’t sign you up for this because you don’t have the prerequisites.” And she drew herself up and said, “I already have a Ph.D. I’m just coming back to take a few things.” “Oh, all right,” he said, and backed down. She didn’t say the Ph.D. was in English, not music.


Nancy Schimmel: [singing] Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes made of ticky tacky. Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes all the same. There’s a green one, then a pink 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.

[speaking] Her first hit was Pete Seeger’s recording of “Little Boxes.” And that was at a time when he was blacklisted. Other people did not record it until he recorded it because they wanted him to have the hit. So, that was something that she had a say in.

Nicholas Mathew: Certainly nowadays people in music, particularly when talking about the ’50s and ’60s, are very conscious of very unequal patterns of credit for producing music, which is obviously not only profoundly racialized but gendered, as well. It’s pretty interesting that, though your mother was this sort of hub to whom so many musicians and activists came, she nonetheless herself ceded the limelight to people like Pete Seeger in the 1960s, or so it seems from our perspective.

Nancy Schimmel: He had been performing since the ’30s. He was a performer. He wasn’t really a songwriter. But there was a prejudice. It was definitely misogyny, but it was particularly against someone of her age. I mean, a man her age would have been okay. But for a woman of her age to try to get into music, she had started out singing folk songs, but as soon as she started writing her own songs, she sang them. And when she started touring in the ’60s, she never sang anything but her own songs.

She started before there was the term “singer-songwriter.” So, you know, she was a woman singing songs she wrote. She has been referred to, and in fact was referred to in one of her obituaries, as a blues singer. She had written a couple blues and she’d written some bluesy songs like “No Hole In My Head.” But I think maybe it’s because of her age. It’s okay for women blues singers to be older, to be middle-aged. But it’s not OK for women pop singers to be older. They have to be young. And she was as much influenced by the pop music of her time as she was by the folk music. She’d heard both.

Nicholas Mathew: How did she write songs?

Nancy Schimmel: Well, “Little Boxes” — she just scribbled the words down in the car. Because they were driving past that role of little boxes on the hillside.

Nicholas Mathew: Is it true that those little boxes are the ones near Daly City now?

Nancy Schimmel: Yeah. It really was about conformity, not about architecture.

Nicholas Mathew: Let me ask you about that because “Little Boxes” is, perhaps because of Pete Seeger’s recording of it, your mother’s most famous song. It was also used as the theme tune to the Showtime show Weeds. You know, some people, you know, when you read about this song, frequently, it will be criticized for an apparent snobbery, I think. First, it makes it sound as though these little boxes are full of rather well-heeled people, doctors and lawyers. Second, as though there’s a sort of bohemian disdain for, I don’t know, petty bourgeois lives of conformity, which perhaps could, in other political contexts, be recast as families striving for healthier living environments and so on. How would you respond to that accusation?

Nancy Schimmel: I put that down to East Coast bias, because they pointed to Levitt towns which were working families getting their first homes. But the hills with views? South of San Francisco down the peninsula, an easy commute to the city? These were not for working class. And she said doctors and lawyers, that was clear.

Nicholas Mathew: Did she — and this is a question for our undergraduates, I think — did she think that the university was a place that encouraged conformity and turned out conformists?

Nancy Schimmel: I think the university did both. It depended on what you went in for. And I think that’s true today. Actually, it’s more true today that you go in order to get trained for a job simply because the university costs so much. When I went to Cal, there was no tuition, there was an incidental fee. It was $37, which, you know, in today’s money would be $150 a semester. And that was it. So, people could go and not feel like they had to get a degree in business. So, it is a different world. And I don’t know it, I really don’t.


Nicholas Mathew: So, now can I ask sort of slightly more knotty questions about, and this is to go back to one of the things that you raised earlier about the racial omissions, the ways in which racial politics cut across working class politics in the ’30s in ways that were complicated and uncomfortable to talk about nowadays.

Nancy Schimmel: The musician’s union was segregated in San Francisco when I was at Cal. My husband was a musician, and there were two separate locales of the same the same union — for Black and white.

Nicholas Mathew: The free speech movement at Berkeley, the civil rights movement, and all of the related activism have become, I suppose you could say, commodified to a degree. There’s now a cafe in the library that you can go to in Berkeley called the Free Speech Movement Cafe, and you can get an oat milk latte and sit at the table with large, very attractive grainy photographs of student protesters all around you.

But that tells you something about the sort of romance, but also perhaps the slight domestication, of the threat and the real political stakes of that era. One of the charges that is sometimes leveled against some of the student activists, at least in that period, is that they were well-heeled white Bohemians who were in search of a kind of nebulous anti-authoritarian freedom, which actually was very consistent with the subsequent neoliberal politics that many of them grew up and participated in in the ’70s. And actually was responsible for sort of deregulating and abrading infrastructure. Especially now, in the middle of this crisis, we’re sort of realizing just how precious infrastructure is, and authority and institutions. And so, I’m wondering how you would respond to that. And I also wondered where you position your mother in all this, as someone who was from a different era?

Nancy Schimmel: I think in a way that’s a false dichotomy because on the right, where they say they want smaller government, they pour money into the Pentagon, even more than the Democrats. They support the police, whatever they do. So, the whole thing about how much government we have, I think is, is a red herring because it is not true that that’s the divide. It’s what the government does. That’s the divide.

And, and you know, there’s an interesting thread that goes through all this, which is that in the Ford hunger march four men were killed. They don’t know whether it was by the police or by the hired police and the security guards of Ford. It was deputy sheriffs who raided my grandparents’ house. It was police, it was state police who dragged students down the stairs of Sproul hall during the free speech movement and it’s police brutality that we’re demonstrating against now.

It seems like every so often a generation of students gets politicized by the police. And that certainly happened with the free speech movement and it happened in 1961. There were students at the HUAC — the House Un-American Activities Committee — hearings in San Francisco in the city hall. They got washed down the stairs with fire hoses and they got politicized. My mother wrote a song about that. It was to the tune of “Billy Boy.”

[Sings] Did they wash you down the stairs, Billy boy, Billy boy. Did they watch you down the stairs, charming Billy? Yes, they washed me down the stairs. The something… police were there… and they rearranged my hair with a club in the city hall rotunda.

[Speaks] And she wrote her song “No Hole In My Head” around the time of the free speech movement. Songs, in a way, have to be simple. They go by quickly. You can’t, you know, it’s not like a book that you can reread. So, when you asked a question about little boxes and saying that the real problem there was that Black people couldn’t buy them. Yes, true. But you can’t stuff it all in one song or you get something like this, just a list of problems. That’s not a song!

Nicholas Mathew: Clearly, you as a storyteller, songwriter, educator, have got from your mother a real belief in the power of song. 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 mean, you obviously believe in this. I suppose I want you to expand on you in 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.

Nancy Schimmel: 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. So, she was trying to use lived experience in her songs. The main reason, I think, and certainly one reason she left the Communist Party was that their language was so awful. They were so theoretical and it was with their own jargon. They couldn’t communicate with anybody, much less with workers on the line in a factory. I think the left has learned a little bit since then and they learn to listen. But it’s a hard road.

Nicholas Mathew: “It isn’t nice to block the doorway. It isn’t nice to go to jail. There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail…”

Nancy Schimmel: “…You told us once, you told us twice, but if that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.” And right now, you know, that everyone was all up in arms about these athletes kneeling — they were being nice. It didn’t work. So now, we have people in the streets blocking traffic and people are saying, “That’s not nice.” Well, no, we tried nice!


Nicholas Mathew: So, here I am with Margaret Crawford from architecture. These little boxes newly built in Daly City in the early 1960s. Who was building them and who were they for, and who ultimately would live in them? Was it doctors and lawyers?

Margaret Crawford: No, I think that Malvina Reynolds got her sociology wrong. They were actually built by a developer, a man named Henry Doelger. And he developed large swaths of the Sunset District in San Francisco, with also identical houses, perhaps even more identical than the ones in Daly City. They were really intended for the middle-middle class, not the doctors and lawyers. I’m not sure if they drank martinis, probably not, beer might have been more like it. So, they’re really not the upper-middle class, but middle-middle class, you could say blue-collar workers, who were at that time paid fairly well. Ticky tacky? Not really the case necessarily. I think they’re actually relatively well-built. Certainly better built than many of the houses in Berkeley that Malvina Reynolds might’ve lived in.

Nicholas Mathew: Running through the interview was, I think, a tension between left-wing politics and the left-wing aspirations of a particular generation of white Bohemians. And the racial politics that cuts across it. What was the history of race and immigration patterns with respect to communities like the Daly City little boxes?

Margaret Crawford: Well, I guess I would say it’s complicated. Daly City, the Westlake neighborhood, which are the little boxes, were really designed as a whites-only community. But a lot of things changed in 1965 — immigration laws changed in 1968, open housing laws. And so, new people moved in. And a lot of new people who came were Filipino immigrants. And now Daly City is known as the Penoy capital. It has one of the largest percentages of Filipinos in the United States. It’s known in the Philippines very well as a desirable destination.

So, times change and places change. It’s interesting that Malvina Reynolds’s critique of Daly City doesn’t have anything to do with the racial restrictions. It actually is a taste critique, in which monotony and conformism is equated with repetition of housing types. And that’s a issue called “environmental determinism” — the idea is that your environment totally determines your outcomes. Houses that are all the same, people who were all the same.

Nicholas Mathew: This leads us, I think, into something I’m going to talk more about with Timothy Hampton and Maria Sonevytsky in a moment. It’s to do with the very deep history of despising the suburbs, you could say. That maybe starts with people like Betjeman and maybe even Eliot’s “Prufrock” and takes you through Beatles’s “Nowhere Man” and entire swaths of anti-suburban culture in the ’70s. There’s a problem, isn’t there? In urban design discourse suburbs fall between two stools in a way. On the one hand, they are not the exciting density celebrated by your tech bros such as Richard Florida, where living together in cities on top of one another somehow taps into these hidden resources of human ingenuity. But on the other hand, it’s not pastoralism — it’s not escaping from the city. It’s this middle space that’s dominated by the automobile, not public transportation, and is rarely identified with virtues such as creativity.

Margaret Crawford: The suburban critique is really an intellectual, professional critique. The number of people, even today, moving to the suburbs vastly outweighs the number of people moving back to central cities. Even though if you read urban blogs and people like Richard Florida, you would never know that many people have moved to the suburbs over the course of the 20th century and the 21st century, African Americans restricted from moving, but then once those restrictions are lifted, moved enlarge numbers to the suburbs. So in spite of a kind of elite critique and a taste critique, the suburbs actually remain really popular with the American people.

Malvina Reynolds is interesting because she’s really a West Coast counterpart, using a very different medium, to Jane Jacobs who wrote her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, the same year. And her target is really the suburbs. She hates the suburbs. Her critique of the suburbs is almost exactly the same as Malvina Reynolds’s. And you can say that this is a kind of, it’s a discussion about distinction. How a certain class faction really wants to differentiate themselves not from the ultra rich or from the poor, but really from the adjacent class faction and show how they are really the problem. And so even though there is a political message here about conformity and mass culture, it’s also an element of class distinction that a lot of Bohemians and academics still have, to tell the truth.

Nicholas Mathew: How do you think we might be able to rehabilitate the suburbs as a politically progressive and interesting position within a culture that still instinctively abhors them?

Margaret Crawford: My current research is about immigrant suburbs. And I think what we’re seeing now is when immigrants come to the United States, they settle immediately in suburbs. And so, if you look at someplace like the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, what you find are the so-called ethnoburbs, in which Asians and Latinos are really the dominant ethnic groups. And they’re creating their own suburban way of life. So, suburbs aren’t really white. They are changing. There are a lot of progressive suburbs.

I think the main thing is, and this is always the problem of the category, that suburbs are so different from each other that it’s hard to generalize. I live in Berkeley. I consider Berkeley a suburb. I’m sure that my neighbors do not, in fact, and they would be horrified by that. But really up in the hills here people have to get in their cars to get a quart of milk. So, it isn’t really the urban ideal that they would say is, you know, the best situation. It’s much more like a suburb in other places and they would really abhor.

Nicholas Mathew: Arguably, even San Francisco itself has become a suburb.

Margaret Crawford: Yeah, San Francisco is a suburb of Silicon Valley. And I think the Silicon Valley example is the most telling one because in an almost completely suburban environment, you have the most dynamic innovation and economic growth in the world. And so, where is it happening? It’s happening in single-family houses and bars like the Wagon Wheel on highway strips. So, this really undermines, I think, the idea that creativity can only happen in walkable urban environments.


Nicholas Mathew: So, I’m here with Maria Sonevytsky from the music department and Timothy Hampton from comparative literature and French, the director of the Townsend Center. Maria, we keep touching on this thing called folk: folk singers, folklore, what even are these things and how do they relate to the kinds of politics that we’ve been talking about with respect to Malvina Reynolds?

Maria Sonevytsky: Wow, how much time do you have? These are really big questions. Can I make a really big general statement, maybe to begin? Folk song, really, since we thought of the category of something like the folk, which is really a German concept, has always been really tied to a kind of mythical being. And the idea that there are people who somehow express something truly authentic, something uncontaminated, often something sort of uncomplicated, right? Something pristine.

So, the way that the folk movement in the United States reflects these kind of original ideas about folklore is really fascinating and has to be situated in a particular time and place. But nonetheless, the idea of the folk song, it even in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, had this sort of sheen of authenticity attached to it, right? That this was a sort of unmediated truth about life. And so that is seen both in the figure of the singer-songwriter who often, especially early on was a, was a man, which I think is relevant to this case, although we have, of course, many famous examples of women folk singers later. And also, it has a particular racialized position, so the folk song becomes both fetishized in a way that it is expressed by particularly African Americans, but then also appropriated by white performers who go on to popularize the songs and capitalize on them. And that’s a recurring kind of cycle in American history of American music.

Nicholas Mathew: So, you might say that built in to the idea of folk song are certain historical patterns of exclusion? Even though I suppose the idea of the folk is always to have recourse to some notion of a people, often as a pastoral people who are the real political agents outside urban political power centers.

Maria Sonevytsky: Absolutely. And I think it would be potentially fruitful to interpret “Little Boxes” through the lens of exclusion and the kinds of exclusions that it’s performing — both in the very notable absence of a discussion of race in the construction of the suburb which you’ve already touched on, but also in the ways that it is, in fact, excluding certain white people from other white people here, right? It is a sort of, it is a sort of condemnation of the supposed conformity of a particular kind of non-enlightened white person. And I think we can see probably reverberations of that in our contemporary politics.

Nicholas Mathew: Ideas of folk song, ideas of the folk mobilized for the ends of radical working-class solidarity, the academy, and then the history of folk rock and rock in the 20th century — all this comes together at Berkeley.

You know that the music department was founded by Pete Seeger’s father, Charles Seeger in the 19s. Tim Hampton, what’s the next part of that story? How is it that a generation of white, self-styled folk singers position themselves against white suburban conformity? But also, how do they produce this exclusive identity — one that Malvina Reynolds was able to draw on and subvert in all sorts of subtle ways?

Timothy Hampton: Well, I think there are a couple of steps along the way. A crucially important figure, of course, is Woody Guthrie, who was raised in Oklahoma and left Oklahoma to move to California in the Dust Bowl, who spent time with the farm workers in the Central Valley and wrote about them. He wrote about the difficulties of coming to California. And he has this wonderful song called “Do Re Mi,” where he says “California is a Garden of Eden.” It’s a paradise to live in or see, but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot if you ain’t got no “Do Re Mi.” I think this is something we can all relate to. Given tuition increases and cost of living increases in California, it’s an ongoing problem.

Anyway, Guthrie comes to California and he gets involved in the music scene in L.A. And he emerges as a kind of figure of authenticity because he had been in the fields. And yet he was not necessarily singing songs that had been handed down or were presumed to have been handed down. He invented his own songs. He wrote songs from scratch. The most famous being of course, “This Land is Your Land.” And he was picked up then as a kind of figure of authenticity by a sort of left-wing political culture.

That tradition is then filtered through his friend Pete Seeger, Charles Seeger’s son, who was of course the great folk singer and folklorist, and who helped make Woody Guthrie famous in many ways by recording many of the songs. That tradition then sort of bubbles along. And it’s disturbed in a certain kind of way by another kind of radicalism or rebellion, which happens in the 1950s with the onset of rock and roll.

In the 1950s, in the beginning of the 1960s, there’s a sense that pop music in all of its forms has become completely… boring, first off, and also completely artificial and overproduced and slick. And from within that world, then you get the emergence of figures who write against that slick production. The main figure, of course, the most famous, is Bob Dylan, who is a middle-class Jewish boy from Minnesota, but presents himself as if he were a hobo just in off riding the rails and singing songs about rural America. So, there’s this idea that these are the folks who become a kind of mouthpiece through which the collective consciousness of the non-urban world can express itself.

Then, folk music becomes something slightly different, which is that it becomes a style of performance. If you play a guitar and sing on the street corner, you are a folk musician. If you play an electric guitar and are backed with a band, you’re not a folk musician. Even though, of course, many of the greatest blues, Black blues musicians from Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters would certainly be, one would think of them as folk musicians, but they would never be categorized as folk musicians by the press. S

o, there’s a strange sense in which folk music then becomes a style, right? And this takes us back in some ways to what was said earlier in the broadcast about little boxes as being a kind of commentary on style. What is the style of architecture in which you live, right? And what is the style of music that you play?

Nicholas Mathew: Maria, just to prompt to you on this, as well. This is something you’ve written about, although with respect to various Eastern European or Russian-Ukrainian contexts. When we talk about style and invest that with a sheen of authenticity, as you put it, because of its folk-like elements. Are we always displacing politics into some sort of aesthetic realm, much as Tim just implied was happening with “Little Boxes?” Or is there a sense that we can still talk about what folk music can accomplish? Because there’s no question that no matter how invented, no matter that it was implicated in all kinds of patterns of exclusion, Malvina Reynolds’s generation really were involved in political action. And their faith in the power of song came not just from some utopian notion of what you can achieve artistically or stylistically, but also from seeing, presumably, what song actually accomplished, what it did — things like activating communities, or solidifying resistance. I’m wondering if there’s a way that we can pick our way through this political and aesthetic minefield.

Maria Sonevytsky: Yeah. So the kind of intermingling of politics and aesthetics and, in fact, the possibility that politics and aesthetics are one and the same is something I am slightly obsessed with as a question. And if we turn to certain theories, then we look at classic sociological studies of taste-making and distinction as actually being the very operations of politics.

Malvina Reynolds wrote a song that is, what, two minutes long. It is a song. It is not a dissertation. And so, we can note certain things to be true about absences and exclusions here. But there’s also no question that the suburbs today function as a political dog whistle to indicate whiteness primarily, even though that is not demographically true nor has it ever been so simple, quite. And we see the utility of that dog whistle in comforting property owners, that their property values will remain on the upswing even despite everything else that’s going on in our economy today. And so, we can see how Malvina Reynolds may not have had a complete picture. She may not have been aware of the history of redlining in Daly City. But she nonetheless touched upon a very powerful racial metaphor for whiteness and its kind of stronghold in the suburbs.

Timothy Hampton: I mean, this is what the power of song is, right? I mean, that the power of song is that it’s not only language; it’s also sound, it’s also rhythm. It’s something that sticks in your body. And so that’s why those two minutes of that song are much more powerful than a dissertation. And I would just call attention in a contemporary context to the fact that last night at the Democratic convention, there was a performance by Billy Porter of Stephen Stills’s song from 1967 “For What It’s Worth,” about the riots on Sunset Strip. I mean, that song is completely relevant today. And once you get it in your head, as I’ve had it today, you can’t get it out. And that’s what music does.


Nicholas Mathew: Thanks to Nancy Schimmel, Timothy Hampton, Maria Sonevytsky and Margaret Crawford. Follow us on Twitter or visit us on the music department website, where you’ll find links to further reading and listening based on today’s episode, information about music department events, how to donate to the department, and much, much more. My name is Nicholas Mathew. That was BPM.