The Unsung Malvina Reynolds

[originally written for the Berkeley Stage Company Newsletter, 1983, for a revue of songs by Malvina Reynolds]

So much has been said about Malvina Reynolds the person. Berkleyite, organizer, matriarch of the woman's movement, and one of the most influential cultural voices of the last thirty years. She has touched the lives and minds of many of us, and it is with a justified curiosity that writers have tended to explain her predominantly as a personal phenomenon.

But I intend something slightly different here. I want to talk about Malvina Reynolds the artist, and from a a musician's perspective, try to understand a little about her work on its own terms. It seems to me that as an artist, she has not received the kind of critical consideration that she so deserves. Artistry is a subtler and more difficult issue than "persona," yet often it is ultimately more important. What makes Malvina's songs so important to us, and so artistically interesting, is their unusual degree of integrity. I am not speaking about a personal integrity, nor even artistic vs. commercial integrity, although lord knows she had plenty of both, but an integrity of style in which so many qualities wit, social conscience, gentleness, and a clear direct voice are subtly integrated to support and enhance each other, creating an unique vision and voice that was Malvina's and no one else's. Malvina Reynolds was not simply a folk singer, not a "protest singer," not even just a squeaky voiced canticler of children's songs. She was a consummate artist who continually invented new and fascinating forms and modalities in which to tell us about the world. She was a songwriter who was able to combine and recombine humor, clear statement, and a sophisticated sense of poetry and rhythm, to produce works of singular beauty and imagination.

Much of her artistry lies in the parable, and in the way seemingly meaningless or childlike ideas can express a wide range of powerful emotions, and even have far-reaching social implications.

"If you were little, no bigger than a kitten.
I'd tuck you in my pocket, and carry you around.
I'd feed you strawberry shortcake, without too much sugar
And when my special friends came round, I'd even let them hold you.
Because I am so proud."
(Schroder Music, 1975)
In these so-called "children's" songs, we are never quite clear to whom Malvina is speaking, and I think that's the main point. It could be just a little child, or it might be a multi-national corporation. Malvina is trying, indirectly, to let us know about some of the great equalizers in the world like songs and gentleness. In "Mario's Duck," a little epic about a boy and his duck or the Chilean junta (whichever you prefer), she manages to communicate to us both the tremendous joy and tragedy of the Chilean peasants' life, simply by recounting a simple story about a hapless little duck. The whimsical "If You Love Me," is an almost mystical love song, as usual with a slight twist, that is at the same time a deceptively simple suggestion about how to really communicate with a loved one:
If you love me, if you love, love, love me
Plant a rose for me.
And if you think you'll love me for a long, long time,
Plant an apple tree.
(Cassandra Music, 1975)
Malvina's songs were most often about very specific social situations, and what these children's and semi-nonsense torch songs do is establish a counterpoint of joy and poetry to her political statements. Yet even in her most direct social and political attacks we can find these same qualities of wit and mercy, and this is perhaps what makes Malvina so unique.

She knew how to take a strong social injustice and cloak it in humor and forgiving, so that even those of us under attack felt more as if we were being cajoled into doing something we really should be doing anyway.

Songs like "Little Boxes," "The Little Mouse," and "What Have They Done to the Rain?", with their easily understood and readily accessible messages of an America gone awry, have become more or less signature tunes for Malvina Reynolds. But in many ways these same songs are the least characteristic of her work. It is often the case that the work for which an artist is most widely known is frequently that which is most meaningful to the public's least common denominator, rather than the most developed examples of an artist's thought. Tunes like "Little Boxes" have become almost archetypal "protest songs," yet they seem to me to lack many of the more interesting elements of Malvina's individual style. In these more popular tunes there is a noticeable lack of the sense of forgiving common to her more powerful statements, and instead of her usual positive proclamation of the working class, there is a rather negative and almost self-righteous view of the middle class. Unfortunately, her public was more willing to acclaim those songs which were more blatantly critical, and perhaps served to assuage certain ambivalent facets of our own lives.

There is one important quality, however, that places Malvina's work alongside that of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Holly Near, and many of the other giants of the genre. This is the willingness, and maybe even the need to take on any issue, no matter how large, and handle it with stride, wit, artistry, and natural grace. Like Guthrie, she reserved a special place for the most universal social problems, and treated them with an extraordinary poetic care. For Malvina, the enemy was very simply "them" much of the time, and she had the rare ability to take "them" on with a dangerously disarming innocence that could very quickly clarify who the bad guys were, and what we could do about it. Perhaps the finest example is her song "World in Their Pocket," with its wonderfully optimistic and nearly earthshaking final line (the latter sung appropriately in a minor key):

They've got the world in their pocket,
Pocket, pocket, pocket.
They've got the world in their pocket,
and they're up there in control.
They've got the world in their pocket,
they can shake it they can rock it
they can kick it for a goal.
They've got the world in their pocket
but their pocket's got a hole.
Larry Polansky
Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College