Arts Listings

Remembering Malvina Reynolds

By Michael Rossman, Special to the Planet
Tuesday March 18, 2008

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, her daughter 

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 life-blessing pioneer. 


“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 singing—she probably told him this too—and 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 creampuff—she 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 own—from civil rights to whales, from hot rain to sugar metabolism—and 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 turn—songs 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.”) 




Performed by Judy Fjell and Nancy Schimmel at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 23 at Freight and Salvage. $18.50-$19.50. 548-1761.  

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