Malvina Reynolds

[This is a slight update on an article that originally ran in The Chiseler, maybe five years ago]

Malvina Reynolds was, so far as I know, the only singer/songwriter/protestor/grandmother of the ’60s. She was most popular for “Little Boxes,” a digging satire of suburban living and entrapment. 

You might expect a woman in her 60s (born in 1900, she aged perfectly with the century), who stood up for left-wing values, to have mellowed into a Buddhist mindset. Ha! Leave that to youngsters like Timothy Leary.

Malvina came on like a musical freight train, with slamming commentary that spared no targets. Not only are her little boxes

“all made out of ticky tacky
and they all look just the same,”


“… the children go to summer camp

And then to the university,

Where they are put in boxes

And they come out all the same.”

Born in San Francisco, the daughter of a Jewish socialist tailor and his wife, a labor organizer, who both opposed U.S. Involvement in World War I, she had been putting together protest and children’s songs for a couple decades before she leapt into the hardcore politicization of the ’60s.

If you look into her composing output (, her range, depth and sheer volume can remind you of Woody Guthrie.

I don’t know her children’s songs, so I’m talking here about her protest work. Her voice wasn’t strong, but it was deliberate, dedicated and tough. Her lyrics weren’t catchy in the pop sense—they charged ahead and often ran around the corner before you could catch up. They held your attention by being unlikely, loopily funny and often based on a weirdly sprung meter. 

Today, many of them might seem puzzling because they were fixed so firmly to the immediate subject that inspired them. “The Judge Said,” one of her most powerful blasts, is based on a specific case in Wisconsin where a judge blamed a rape victim for being part of a permissive generation. Malvina was attaching her song to a (successful!) petition to recall the judge. It’s  excellent but hard to expand into a general statement.

On the other hand, “Boraxo,” extolling a cleaning agent that can obliterate the worst of social crimes, though based on the sponsor of a Ronald Reagan radio program before he became California governor, still resonates as an overall response to police brutality:

“Tho you’ve had your hands in blood up to the elbow;

You can always wash them clean with Boraxo.”

In one of my personal favorites, “The Faucets Are Dripping,” the waste from leaking plumbing becomes a metaphor for both urban squalor and environmental disgrace: 

“The reservoir’s drying because it’s supplying

The faucets that drip in New York.”

I don’t know if the various “Occupy” groups picked up on Malvina, but they should have. “The Little Mouse” celebrates a rodent in Buenos Aires who chewed through a computer wire and brought down an entire banking system. What she sang with great élan in a live concert is definitely not like anything my grandmother ever said or sang.

And “Dialectic” compares the lives of the stinking rich with those of the (differently) stinking poor. 

Either of these songs could and should be sung loudly in Wall Street.

And try this (despite the weirdness of calling it an “awful song”):

Malvina churned out so many songs that it would be impossible to run through even the top rank. For a good selection, try Ear to the Ground, which collects 23 of her songs on a Smithsonian Folkways recording that you can download. Some are light and positive, many are dark and biting. All reflect a woman who saw the world with a caring vitality that few can match in these “me first” days. 

*    *    *    *

A closing aside on Jewish intellectuals.

 Brought up a Catholic through eight years of Catholic schools, I went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where, writing features and a column for the student paper, I befriended mostly Jews. It was a revelation – for the first time I was educated among people I wholly liked and felt comfortable with. Later, during the kind of purposeless post-graduate drifting that was possible in the ’60s, I was the only nominal Christian in a small houseful of Jews, the brightest people I’ve ever known. 

Malvina was a Jewish intellectual (I wish I knew the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation in English lit). Her songs reflect her interest in… well, just about everything. She listened to every kind of music, read about and knew about everything that was happening in the world. 

Why did the Nazis hate Jews with such virulence? It wasn’t just about money or social leanings, I think, it was as much a revulsion against their knowledge and brilliance. You still see that in violent anti-semitic reactions today. If a Jewish intellectual was as dumb as the modern electorate, the knuckle-draggers might at least tolerate them. But a non-Christian who’s brighter than they can ever hope to be? That, sir, is insupportable.

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