Update: I rewrote line three. It's either clearer or more heavy-handed, depending on your preference.
Tom Lehrer called "Little Boxes" the most sanctimonious song ever written. I hadn't stated it so bluntly, but the sentiment has been in my mind for some time. The lyrics deplore the sameness of 1962 suburbanites and their houses, which "are all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." It is supposedly Levittown that inspired Malvina Reynolds to write the song. Many others have recorded it, but Pete Seeger's version is the best-known.
I thought it was snide, and perhaps a bit unfair, when I first heard it years ago. But it was snide and unfair to the right people so I really didn't mind too much. Offending bourgeois sensibilities was what being a folkie was all about. Looking down on such people was what reminded us how superior we were.
I am uncertain what prompted my slow reverse on the song; perhaps becoming a homeowner myself had something to do with it. But long before I left liberalism I had decided that this song revealed a rather poisonous attitude of contempt. Maybe all these suburbanites weren't all fascinating and eccentric people, I reasoned, but they were decent working folk, bringing up families and enduring the difficulties that life brings. What was Reynold's beef with people who wanted to own homes? Many were likely children of immigrants who had never owned property in America. A modest house on a little plot, with a bit of garden and some shrubbery - what on earth is the problem here.
I eventually decided that the reverse was true. People in Levittown gradually added dormers and carports, porches and fences, and made the little boxes individual. Homes. The Malvina Reynolds of the world, however, changed not at all, and spent their time in mutual self-congratulation with other folkies. Reynolds was a PhD in English from Berkeley, and a communist organizer left over from the 30's. Just regular folk, y'know? Friend of the working man, and all that. Seeger, product of a fashionable Connecticut boys school and journalism major at Harvard, is drawn from the same pool: Arts & Humanities Tribe, with contempt for the Business Tribe, and Science & Technology Tribe. Hoping that they were burgeoning communists if they could just be made to see the light, folkies were good to the Union tribe, at least up until the 70's.
That's all we folkies ever were: A&H snobs who really believed that bad poets were worth more than good homebuilders - though we said the opposite.
The song "Little Boxes" has lingered in the back of my mind, hated but hummed, these forty years. Perhaps I can exorcise it with this parody.
Little folkies on the hillside, little folkies made of ticky tacky
Little folkies, little folkies, little folkies, all the same
There’s a white one, and a white one, and a white one, and a white one
And they’re all made out ticky-tacky and they all think just the same.
All the people who are folkies all know how to say “diversity”
But they all think in boxes, little boxes, all the same.
And there’s artists, and there’s journalists and there’s teachers of social sciences
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all think just the same.
They believe the TV newscast and the newspaper editorials
But they never believe conservatives so they can’t be taken in.
Now they don’t all wear gray ponytails and they don’t all wear Birkenstocks
But they wear them on the inside in the boxes in their brains
And the houses look like summer camp and they all buy organically
And they don’t have any children, except okay, maybe one.
There’s a Green one and a Pink one, an old Red one and a Rainbow one,
But they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all think just the same.