Malvina Reynolds

Antiwar songs by Malvina Reynolds
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Malvina ReynoldsLet’s Go Dancing Til the Break of Day:
A Rememberance of Malvina Reynolds

by Nancy Schimmel

My mother, Malvina Reynolds, once told me that when she was young, she would lie in bed and imagine that she was onstage, dancing, with a spotlight following her. She wanted to be a movie star, but she assumed that that would never happen, so she decided she'd be a teacher instead and work a smaller stage. Although she never actually taught except briefly as a student in college, she did reach center stage in her own way performing the songs she wrote. Malvina recorded 6 albums for adults and 3 for children and kept writing and performing until a few days before her death at the age of 77.

She was born in San Francisco on August 23, 1900. Music was always a part of her life. To wake up his children in the morning, her father would wind up the phonograph and play a record. Her parents didn't have much money, but they saw to it that their children had violin lessons. When Malvina and her brother grew up, they both played violin in dance bands.
Malvina, who dreamt of being onstage and eventually realized that dream, was a shy person. As she herself wrote,

I was a lonely child; I can't remember any friends in grade school except Esther. Why she picked quiet, shy me for a friend, I don't know. She was bold, laughing, quick. She would sit back of me in school and slowly pull one hair out of my braid. Miss Geary would say, "Hit her! With your ruler!" I never would. I liked Miss Geary. I intended to be a teacher, and would be like her—a good sport....I am still shy with people. I can easily face and talk with and sing to a hundred or a thousand. But at a party, next to a stranger, I haven't much to say.

Malvina found friends, but she didn't often find a group she fit into:
The times I have been happiest were the rare times when I was one of a gang....I had a kind of gang when we lived on Buchanan Street [in San Francisco]. I must have been seven or eight. We would sit in the light of the street lamp in the evening on the high wooden flight of stairs, a dozen of us, and while the bigger boys played "One Foot Off the Gutter," I would make up long stories to tell the others. I don't remember what the stories were about, but they must have been interesting; I can remember the young voices in the evening, calling me to come out.

Malvina's world view was strongly shaped by hearing her parents discuss politics with their friends. They were socialists, and she said that that view "always made sense" to her. They were also openly opposed to U.S. participation in the First World War, which they considered an imperialist war. In fact, on the morning of her high-school graduation exercises, Malvina was warned by a friendly teacher that she and her cousin were to be refused their diplomas in front of everybody because of her parents' political views.
I had first come to the attention of the principal's office with a premature women's liberation movement on the school grounds. At noon, the boys could leave the grounds to play around on the streets and to get hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee, and pop at the little store across the street. I circulated a petition that the girls be allowed out of the yard at noon also. The answer was no. It wasn't proper for girls to be on the street. [The girls then asked that the boys be restricted, and were told] if the school tried to restrict the boys they'd just climb the fence. Probably in the same situation now, the girls would climb the fence. Then, nothing happened except that quiet, shy me was fingered as a troublemaker.

It was while she was in high school that Malvina first met William "Bud" Reynolds, at a socialist dance. He was a merchant seaman, seven years older, handsome, and even more shy than she. He was self-educated, having left school after the eighth grade. They read poetry to each other in Golden Gate Park, but when he proposed, she refused. Encouraged by her mother, she had her sights set on college and a career. She got into the University of California at Berkeley without a high school diploma, and it was while doing graduate work in English there that she did some student teaching. She used pop songs to teach her high school students about rhyme scheme and meter, as they were not poetry readers.

Malvina found her "gang"—her compatible, accepting group—in the English Department at UCB and stayed around to get "all the degrees possible," as she says in Love It Like a Fool, the film documentary made about her. She married someone else, and so did Bud. He ran for governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket, with the slogan, "You provide the evictions, we'll provide the riots!" They found each other again after she was divorced, and this time she said yes.

My mother was writing her dissertation when I was little and got her Ph.D. in 1936. But it was the middle of the Depression; she was Jewish, a socialist, and a woman; and she couldn't get a job teaching. But when the Second World War broke out, she got a job on an assembly line in a bomb factory, and Bud went to work as a carpenter in a shipyard.

My mother came from a long line of women who worked outside the home. Her grandmother ran a deli while her husband read Torah. Her own mother and father ran a naval tailor shop. When I was in the fifth grade, my mother's father died, and she and my father and grandmother ran the shop together.

While my father worked as a carpenter and organizer and ran the family business with my mother, he also changed my diapers, and he made breakfast most mornings. He encouraged and helped my mother in her songwriting career, but he made the decisions about money. My mother wasn't always happy with them. He died seven years before she did, and while she missed him terribly, she told me it did give her a certain satisfaction to be making her own business decisions.

Reynolds with Country Joe McDonald

Malvina had always written newspaper articles about her factory days, as well as poems, stories, and the occasional song but she didn't begin songwriting in earnest until she was about 45. A songwriting group had formed in Los Angeles around Earl Robinson and the People's Songs crowd (the People's Songs Bulletin was the forerunner of Sing Out! magazine.) Her first songs were for adults. She did write "Magic Penny" early on, but didn't think of it as a song for young children. She was writing the line "Let's go dancing til the break of day" while I was at one of those awkward junior high dances. I'm sure she was wishing she was dancing, too (my father didn't dance, and I was my mother's folk-dance partner).

There were strong political statements made in many of my mother's songs, but it was often done with humor, gentleness, and poetic images. Of course the humor and gentleness were basic to her children's songs, but she could make points there, too. For example, her song against drug use, "It's Up To You," starts out whimsical, saying, "You might have been born a ladybug, you might have been born a bat"; but it gets serious eventually, when it says, "You were born a being with a mind and a voice, and the power of choice."

Although she gradually began to write more children's songs, Malvina was careful to point out that she didn't exactly fit the stereotype of the children's performer and songwriter. In a workshop on children's music that she gave at the Pied Piper Music Festival in 1977, she said,
I don't think of myself primarily as a writer of children's songs. In fact, I tend to avoid that title, because the first thought is, you know, this nice old grandma who makes cookies and sings for kids, and that's not my character at all. I have a very acid edge toward many aspects of modern life, and I'm pretty outspoken about it. I don't mind crossing swords with people when I disagree with them, and I'm not your nice old grandma. However, I always make it clear that the reason I have this sharp cutting edge is because I do care for people. I care about children, and I think the world is ripping them off, taking away their natural environment and much more than that—the natural progression of their tradition—and leaving them stripped, uneasy, uncomfortable, and in deep trouble, and it's because of that that I'm so sharp.

Julie Thompson, producer of several of Malvina's albums, interviewed her on the radio in Los Angeles in 1977. In answering a question about children writing their own songs, Malvina said,

Now, the spoken voice has rhythm and a kind of preliminary...melody line, and that's why we have national music, because the music takes its rhythms and tunes from the spoken language. That's why it's so hard to translate songs....When children are playing or talking, they're often singing, and you can pick up on something like that and turn it into a song. They love it, but they do it themselves. They'll say, "Ha-ha, look what you did!" and there's a little song, or, "Maaama—I don't want it," and you've got a song.

Anything that's said expressively and with emphasis will work, and if you let it ride on that, you'll find they'll be making up songs in no time at all. If we take a constructive attitude...and don't expect them to have perfect rhythm or perfect pitch...and don't give them the idea that they can't do it, they will. My husband was told that he couldn't sing. His family all had fine voices, and I guess his wasn't as good. They used to make him shut up, and all of his life he wouldn't sing, except when my daughter was a little bitty girl. He would sing for her, and she thought he had the most beautiful voice in the world!

In answer to a question about using traditional songs with children, Malvina said,

People don't realize that many of these lovely, clever, funny children's songs that have come down to us are not transmitted from parent to child, but from one generation of children to another. The younger ones hear the older ones sing the songs, play the games, and make up the instruments, and then they carry it on to the next generation. And it's a whole world of its own.

A great many songs now are created for children by grown-ups, but I try myself to get into a purer frame of mind when I'm singing for them, in the sense that I'm trying to speak directly and not let a whole lot of overcivilizing, overperfecting, or mechanical influences get between me and the listener. So perhaps some of my songs will someday get to be part of that kind of tradition, which I would love to see happen.

From Pass It On!: Journal of the Children’s Music Network (Issue #35, Spring 2000)