As I was writing What Kind of Music Is That?, my mind naturally ran through a juke box inventory of folk songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s: Tom Dooley, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, Blowin’ in the Wind, If I Had a Hammer and . . . Little Boxes. I had probably not given more than 5 minutes of thought in fifty years to this three-chord ditty with the nursery-rhyme melody, just cataloguing it, as a professor put it in a Time article in 1964, as a song that in a minute and a half tells you all you need to know “about middle-class conformity.” But I’m glad it came to mind, because the years have a way of putting a different spin on old forgotten things.
Tom Lehrer supposedly called Little Boxes the “most sanctimonious song ever written.” He was right, but not nearly right enough. It is a priggish ode to narrow-minded ignorance and condescension that says more about the songwriter and those who sang and embraced it than it does about the alleged middle-class conformists who lived in those ticky-tacky boxes.
If you’re not familiar with the song and its background, it was written by Malvina Reynolds and inspired by the sprawling postwar tract housing that had grown up around Daly City, California. The houses are made of “ticky tacky”, come in a few boring pastel hues, and are inhabited by doctors and lawyers and business executives who “all went to university,” are “all made of ticky tacky” and “all look just the same.” They all play golf, drink their martinis dry, and send their children to the same schools and summer camps. Eventually these children will also go to university, be put in boxes, marry, raise a family and “come out all the same.” And to think, this snarky cleverness passed for cutting-edge profundity among the self-anointed intelligentsia of the 60’s!
There are many things wrong with this song at many different levels. One of the more laughable bits of ignorance in the song is “went to university.” No one in the United States in 1962 talked like this. They said, as we do now, “went to college.” “Went to uni” is Brit-speak. My guess is that she put this phrase in the mouths of these rubes to make it seem like they were aping their English betters to give themselves a veneer of sophistication.
As you may have guessed from the accompanying picture of my oldest friend Donna and me, I grew up in one of those ticky-tacky neighborhoods. Based on the description in her song, I don’t think Ms. Reynolds ever drove through any of those kinds of neighborhoods. Most of the parents in Greenwood Acres and other similar neighborhoods in Annapolis did not go to college. They were truck drivers and car salesmen and factory employees. The ones who did earn a degree didn’t matriculate at Yale; they went to state schools on the G.I. Bill. In our area, many of them worked as mid-level government employees in the bowels of NSA keeping an eye on the Soviets. I didn’t see much martini drinking in those days; the adult beverages of choice were Schlitz and Natty Boh and powdered-mix whiskey sours. If anyone played golf it was at a public course, but for the most part recreation was fishing, hunting, rooting for the Colts and Orioles and pitching whiffle ball to the kids. The lucky few of us who got to go to summer camps spent a week at a barebones’ Scout location. For most of us, however, summer camp was that ticky-tacky neighborhood and the lure of its streets and surrounding woods and fields.
There is no question those houses were shoddily built. Ours was brick, but I had a north-facing corner bedroom, and in the winter the cheap casement windows would sweat and ice would form on the sills at night, and then in the daytime the thaw would run down the walls.
When I was in my teens, my mother decided to have insulation installed, and when the workers drilled a hole in the living room wall to blow the fiberglass, they discovered that the studs were not 2x4s, but 1” furring strips, and the fiberglass stuck to the brick and backed up without filling any of the space. They poured in a different kind of pelletized insulation, but that just ran down into the cavities in the cinderblock foundation and turned the basement into a dust storm. Eventually they realized that if they drilled 4” holes in the wallboard every few feet the fiberglass would work, which turned the whole house into gypsum Swiss cheese.
We had septic tanks that didn’t work very well. Families had 3 choices: 1) Have it cleaned out once a month, which was expensive. 2) Conserve by taking baths in a few inches of water (showers, are you kidding!), and on Saturday mornings run a pipe from the washing machine into the driveway and empty the water into the street. 3) Let it gurgle up in the backyard. We opted for #2, which turned my mother into the bath Nazi, just waiting to pound on the door when she detected someone using a few ounces over their ration. Some families just said to hell with it and defaulted to #3, which made for some very interesting tackling in backyard football games.
Reynolds’ desire to make a political point about stultifying bourgeois values blinded her to the real meaning of those neighborhoods. Look down that street behind Donna and me. What you see are mowed lawns, washed cars, trashcans placed neatly beside mailboxes, shrubs that have been planted and nurtured, and power lines carrying electricity to those washing machines. If you look close enough, you might even see the bubbles from that Saturday morning wash water drifting over the gutters.
What you don’t see is any visible evidence of what the parents and grandparents and great grandparents overcame in order for their children to live in those ticky-tacky boxes. You don’t see the ramp of the landing craft on the beach at Guadalcanal as it comes down and reveals the look in the eyes of those boys flinching ashore. You don’t see families standing in a bread line in a squalid Hooverville during the Depression. You don’t see men serving prison terms because of the insanity of Prohibition. You don’t see the pogroms and the famines and the wars endured by the forebears of the Poles and Jews and Greeks and Irish who eventually settled in that drab neighborhood.
The most important thing about that neighborhood should be evident to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the people who lived there. What it represented was a promise of normalcy for generations that had known too much uncertainty, hardship and horror. The kids who lived there ate white bread, but they had bread to eat. They all worked at McDonald’s, but those were summer jobs, and not the dawn-to-dusk farm labor that their grandparents had known. They all read from the same textbooks at school, but they knew how to read and write – in English. Malvina Reynolds looked at that neighborhood and saw numbing, hellish conformity, but for those of us who grew up there, and our parents, that boring routine and order was a little bit of heaven on earth.
Forgive me for railing about a 55 year old song that only gets played today on Public Television reruns of Hootenanny. For me it still has meaning, just not the meaning Ms. Reynolds intended.