Reynolds, Malvina (1900–1978)
Reynolds, Malvina (1900–1978)
Prolific lyricist, musician, and muse of American folk and protest music. Born Malvina Milder on August 23, 1900, in San Francisco, California; died on March 17, 1978, in Berkeley, California; eldest of three children of David Milder and Lizzie (Shenson) Milder; sister of Eleanor Milder Lawrence (b. 1910); University of California at Berkeley, B.A. in English language and literature, 1925, M.A., 1927, Ph.D., 1939; married Ben Goodman (marriage and divorce dates uncertain); married Bud Reynolds (a musician and labor organizer), in 1935 (died 1971); children: Nancy Reynolds Schimmel (b. 1935).
Inheriting her parents' socialist philosophy and conscience, became a member of the Communist Party (1930s); began to record her thoughts and observations on social justice, world peace, and women's rights in poetry and song; started to perform her music publicly (1940s); was blacklisted for her Communist sympathies because of appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (early 1950s); was "discovered" by the socially conscious folk music world (early 1960s); wrote scores of songs, some of them classics which became major hits for well-known folk artists (mid-1970s); produced several collections of children's songs, as well as establishing her own music publishing company and recording company.
One summer night in 1947, folksinger Pete Seeger found himself talking to a middle-aged, white-haired woman who had approached him after a concert near San Francisco, California. The woman wanted his advice on becoming a singer and songwriter, two professions in which Seeger himself, then only 28, was rapidly advancing. "I usually make a practice of not discouraging people," Seeger remembered nearly 50 years later, "but … I think I had in the back of my mind a feeling, 'Gosh, she's pretty old to want to get started as a musician.' I had a lot to learn." Seeger had no idea that, in time, Malvina Reynolds would write for him and others some of the most passionate and popular activist folk music of the coming years.
Born Malvina Milder in San Francisco on August 23, 1900, Reynolds had been raised in a household with a strong sense of social responsibility coupled with a lively respect for the arts. Both her parents, David and Lizzie Shenson Milder , were active socialists who exposed their eldest daughter early on to music, poetry, and dance. (A brother, Samuel, was born in 1902 and a sister, Eleanor Milder Lawrence , in 1910.) It was David Milder's habit to wake up his household in the morning by playing classical music at high volume on the family phonograph; and one of Malvina's fondest childhood memories was of being taken to the theater by an aunt when she was six years old. "I used to watch the curtain go up and the lights go out, and I was just fascinated," she remembered. She provided her own sort of entertainment to neighborhood children by telling stories with great dramatic flair. She was equally fascinated by music, studying piano and violin during her public school years.
Reynolds' lifelong social activism became evident before she had graduated from Lowell High School, which refused her petition to allow girls to leave the school grounds during lunch—a privilege Malvina pointed out had long been granted to boys. It was not to be her last confrontation with school authorities. As the end of her senior year approached, Reynolds learned she would not be awarded a diploma because of her parents' opposition to World War I, a conflict the Milders considered a deadly exercise in imperialist politics. But she had been such a superlative student that, with the help of several teachers, she was accepted by the University of
California at Berkeley without a diploma. The confidence shown in her abilities proved to be well founded. Reynolds made Phi Beta Kappa during her undergraduate years, receiving her B.A. in English language and literature in 1925, her M.A. in 1927, and her Ph.D. in 1939.
Reynolds observed the poverty and suffering of the Depression as a social worker and through the eyes of schoolchildren to whom she taught English. She began to record her impressions in poetry and in song, finding inspiration in the work of two musicians who, like her, gave voice through their music to the frustrations and fears of the downtrodden. Woody Guthrie and Earl Robinson spent the Depression years crisscrossing the country singing "the people's music," using their talents to call attention to the depredations of the country's worst economic crisis in more than a century. Recalling through their music the populist traditions that had united American workers for generations, they and others like them became a rallying point for the rising labor movement of the times, in which Malvina became increasingly involved after her marriage to Bud Reynolds.
Malvina and Bud had first met at a Socialist meeting in San Francisco when Malvina was in her teens and Bud, originally from Michigan, was in his twenties. Although Malvina had put her college education ahead of Bud's eventual proposal of marriage, the two resumed their relationship in the early 1930s soon after both had become members of the American Communist Party. (Malvina's earlier, brief marriage to Ben Goodman had ended in divorce.) Bud was a vigorous labor organizer and had been instrumental in establishing what would become the United Automobile Workers in Detroit. In the manner of all loyal Communists of the time, Malvina and Bud observed a so-called "red wedding" in 1934, inviting their friends to a party at which they merely announced they were man and wife. Both were atheists and did not consider church or state approval of their union necessary, although the marriage was eventually recorded legally after the birth of a daughter, Nancy, in February 1935.
Love is something, if you give it away, you end up having more.
—Malvina Reynolds, from "Magic Penny"
While Bud continued to contribute his organizational skills to the party, music became increasingly important to Malvina as a means of expressing her own socialist impulses. "After Woody, I think I was one of the first who was primarily interested in writing songs based on labor and the folk tradition, songs with a social content," she once noted. "I write topical songs because I feel as though they are necessary." By the 1940s, while she worked on an assembly line and in her father's tailor shop, Malvina was performing her work in public as part of "The People's Songs," a series of fundraising concerts offering "songs of labor and the American people" backed by the labor movement and its then-ally, the Communist Party. The proceeds of these concerts were used partly to fund union activities and partly to support a kind of folk music clearinghouse which distributed sheet music of new folk songs. By 1950, "People's Songs" had evolved into the folk-music magazine Sing Out!, in which many of Reynolds' songs would be published over the next 25 years. Its inaugural issue featured that anthem of the folk tradition, co-written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, "If I Had a Hammer."
But as the nation's post-war anti-Communism began to take hold, the labor movement along with its artistic supporters came under increasing government scrutiny by Joseph Mc-Carthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. Along with Seeger and many other Communist sympathizers, Malvina and Bud were blacklisted, although both had resigned from the party in 1947 after taking exception to its rigid bureaucracy that allowed no room for creative experiment. Bud was banned from union activities of any kind and Malvina found it difficult to arrange concert appearances or sell her music. Seeger himself, after refusing to testify before the HUAC, spent the next 17 years in professional limbo. "There was no worse name you could call a person than a Communist," Seeger remembers of those days, "and Woody and I and a lot of other people had sung for Communists and radicals and were proud of it. They were the hardest working people."
Bud found work in house repair and remodeling, joining Malvina as a California representative for The National Guardian, a socialist newspaper. All the while, Reynolds never gave up writing music, sometimes relying on news items and public events for her inspiration. A typical example, from the early 1960s, grew from a New York Times article about the tiny nation of Andorra, nestled in the Pyrenees, and its non-existent defense budget:
They spent four dollars and ninety cents On armaments and their defense. Did you ever hear of such confidence?
Other songs written during this period include several that have since become folk and pop standards, such as "Magic Penny," "Pied Piper," "Don't Talk to Me of Love," and "We Hate to See Them Go." "She refused to be discouraged," Seeger says, recalling how Reynolds would often call to sing a new song over the telephone to him or, indeed, to anyone whom she thought might help her get it published. "She would not be put down, even though some people called her pushy." The number of new compositions mounted to such a degree that Seeger once joked
Malvina wrote a new song every morning before breakfast.
The turning point in Reynolds' career came in 1957, when Harry Belafonte recorded a song he had co-written with her, "Turn Around," a poignant ballad sung by a parent marveling at the growth of a child. By now, the protest movement that had gone underground during the Mc-Carthy years was emerging stronger than ever, rolling into the 1960s on the voices of such folk groups as the Kingston Trio, the Backporch Majority, and The Weavers (composed of Seeger, Hays, Fred Hillerman, and Ronnie Gilbert ). Many of Reynolds' songs were among their most popular numbers, although Malvina never felt comfortable with the "folk music" designation and probably would have agreed with performer Big Bill Broonzy's opinion, "I guess all songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing 'em."
Pete Seeger was rescued from obscurity on the wings of Reynolds' "Little Boxes," a sly swipe at the conformist ethic that so dominated the late 1950s and early 1960s. The inspiration came to her on the way to sing at a meeting of the Friends Committee on Legislation in La Honda, California. Passing through Daly City and driving past the rows of cookie-cutter development houses lining the hills alongside the highway, Malvina had her song about "little boxes on the hillside … made out of ticky-tacky" ready by the time she stepped on stage a few hours later, observing:
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 there's doctors, and lawyers, and business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky,
And they all look just the same.
Commercial folk acts like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters gracefully declined to record the song before Seeger did, realizing that Malvina's talent would help him recover his professional fortunes. "'Little Boxes' was actually [Pete Seeger's] first hit single after the long years of the boycott," Malvina later recalled, "and I was glad to be the one that helped to break him through that situation. There were many big name people … [who] had such respect for Peter that they wanted him to have that song." "Little Boxes" did for Seeger what "Turn Around" had done for Malvina, catapulting him into the public eye and re-establishing his role as a leading figure in the folk music and protest movements. Not long after Seeger released "Little Boxes," he was offered his first network television appearance in 17 years (on "The Smothers Brothers Show") and returned triumphantly to a major concert stage with a sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1963.
From now on, Malvina's music was rarely absent from the airwaves, record stores or concert tours. "Morningtown Ride" became a number-one hit in Britain in the 1960s; Malvina's environ-mental protest song "What Have They Done to the Rain?" was recorded by Joan Baez in 1962 and again, as a rock number, by The Searchers in 1965, bringing her music to an even wider audience. By the mid-1960s, Malvina was touring the folk music circuit not only in the United States, but in Europe and Japan. She had also become one of the few women at the time adept at the business of writing and recording music, establishing her own music publishing company and record label and releasing six albums for such major labels as Columbia and Folkways as well as her own Cassandra label. She found an entirely new audience when she began publishing her music for children in such collections as Cheerful Tunes for Lutes and Spoons, Tweedles and Foodles for Young Noodles, and the album Funny-bugs, Giggleworms and Other Good Friends. It seemed inevitable that Reynolds would make several guest appearances on "Sesame Street" after that revolutionary children's program first appeared on PBS in 1969.
Shortly after Bud Reynolds' death in September 1972, Reynolds was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. But she refused to let the disease keep her from her usual performance schedule until the afternoon of March 15, 1978, when she fell ill after a photo shoot in Berkeley. Rushed to the hospital, she died during the early morning hours of March 17, 1978.
"What a wonderful person, how I miss her!" Pete Seeger mourned. "I'm only one of millions who have benefitted from her wisdom and stick-to-itiveness. Her life should be an inspiration to many people in many places." At Reynolds' memorial concert, Seeger introduced the song "No Closing Chord," the lyrics of which had been found among Malvina's papers at her death. "Don't play that closing chord for me, baby," she had written:
I want a wake to wake the dead!
Some rolling sounds with drums
And rocking bass,
And my good comrades dancing
All around the place.
The author wishes to thank Nancy Reynolds Schimmel for her help in the preparation of this entry.
Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton. Folk Music: More Than a Song. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Vol. 4. NY: Macmillan, 1986.
Larkin, Colin, ed. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Vol. 5. London: Guinness, 1995.
Seeger, Pete. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Edited by Peter Blood. Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out, 1993.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York