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Saturday, February 15, 2003

Thinking Outside the Little Boxes

Woo hoo! In honor of the Worldwide Protest for Bloodthirsty Dictators, "Tom Paine" of Silent Running has declared Folk Song Fisking Day. OK, he didn't, he just noticed this Joni Mitchell mocking, but I'm declaring it. All my life, I have wanted an excuse to mock "Little Boxes" (by Malvina Reynolds, popularized by Pete Seeger) in public, and I'm not letting this chance slip by.

If you haven't heard it, "Little Boxes" is a perfect example of horseshit poetry and politics. It does not rhyme. It is simple-minded. It has (if I remember correctly) nothing that you could call a melody. It's a sort of a chant with no meter. It mocks the people who live in the little "boxes" by suggesting that they are "just the same" (thereby robbing them of their individuality, the better to dehumanize and exterminate them when the Revolution comes, eh?). How much better we are than the sheep who send their children to college to become doctors and lawyers!

I've reproduced the song below, interspersed with equally crappy lyrics I made up, but I must give some background.

My stepfather spent the latter part of his youth in a log cabin. It had three rooms---living room, bedroom, and kitchen. They added on a room made of cinder blocks, because that's what they could afford. (That room never had a door---only a curtain, and was the coldest room in the house.) Eventually they enclosed the back porch and made it the kitchen. The old kitchen was turned into my grandparents' bedroom---you had to walk through their bedroom to get from one part of the house to another. A few years before I was born, they added a bathroom. Before that you had to go down the hill to the wasp-filled outhouse. It wasn't a log cabin by then anymore, of course. They put shingles on the outside, and it had electricity (of course) and propane heat.

In that house they raised five kids.

My grandfather worked a lot of jobs. Last job he had he worked in a glass factory, putting the smooth edges on car windows. My other relatives, and their neighbors, were farmers, coal miners, mechanics. The coal miners hoped the mine wouldn't shut down, and dreamed that factories would open up, so maybe their kids would have good factory jobs, and not have to go down in the ground and contract black lung. When those kids were grown, they hoped the factories wouldn't shut down, and dreamed of sending their kids to college, so they wouldn't have to breathe in glass dust, etc.

My grandparents would've loved to have a house made of pretty ticky-tacky on the hills outside San Francisco. They'd have loved to send their kids to college to become doctors and lawyers and businessmen. And my grandparents---the poor workin' folk that folk singers love so much---would have spit on Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger, if they knew of their existence.

This San Francisco song site has some background on the song.

Notes: Malvina Reynolds was born in San Francisco in 1900, but spent most of her life in Berkeley. 'Little Boxes' was the most popular of Malvina Reynolds's many songs. Reynolds got the inspiration for 'Little Boxes' in 1961 while driving to an engagement in Palo Alto. Legend has it that she looked up at a pastel-colored Daly City hill-side and said to her husband: "Bud, take the wheel. I feel a song coming on."

Pete Seeger remembers meeting Reynolds in 1947 when she spoke to him at a hootenanny, saying: 'I'd like to try doing what you do, making up songs and singing them."

Beats workin' in the coal mine.

Sixteen years later Seeger performed 'Little Boxes' at his Carnegie hall concert. The rest is folk music history.

This site has lyrics, and some very pretty graphics which kind of detract from the point of the song. The graphic at the bottom is the sort of scene that people swoon over in Italy or Greece.

Little boxes on the hillside,
little boxes made of ticky-tacky.
Little boxes on the hillside,
little boxes all the same.

Little shacks on the hillside
Little shacks made of wood
Little shacks on the hillside
Looking pretty much the same

There's a green one, and 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.

There's one made of logs, tar-paper covered
There's a better one made of timber
But the cold wind blows through them both in the winter
And they look pretty much 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 the people in the shacks
Never finished high school
Maybe not even grade school
But that made them no less the same

And there's doctors and there's lawyers,
and business executives
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky,
and they all look just the same.

There are coal miners and factory workers
And farmers
And they're made out of gnarled oak and John Deere caps
Which makes them look much the same

And they all play on the golf course,
and drink they're martinis dry
And they all have pretty children,
and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp,
and then to the university
Where they're all put in boxes,
and they come out all the same.

And they all go fishin'
And drink their Budweiser cold
And they all have sickly children
And the children go to school (when they have shoes)
And the children work on farms in summer
And may not finish high school
Thank god they won't be put in warm boxes
And come out all the same

And the boys go into business,
and marry and raise a family.
In boxes made of ticky-tacky,
and they all look just the same.

And the boys go straight to the mine
And the girls have babies early
In boxes made of cardboard
And still they look the same