• U.S.

Folk Singing: Tacky into the Wind

3 minute read

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

All the same

This simple lyric, laminated to a catching tune, is on Billboard’s list of the “Hot 100” singles, comfortably ahead of Tell Me Baby and catching up with Young and in Love. What it is doing in that league is anybody’s guess. Its theme is not love, but development housing.

Blue, green, pink and yellow, the endless little boxes are inhabited by people, the song explains, who have gone to college and now have pretty children who go to summer camp and will soon go on to the university, then into little boxes of their own:

And there’s doctors, and there’s lawyers,

And business executives

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

Overalls to Ban-the-Bomb. The song was written in the front seat of an automobile, while Songwriter Malvina Reynolds was ticktacktooling along down San Francisco’s Skyline Boulevard. At the moment of inspiration, tract houses were pressing in on the road from all sides. Two hours later, she had finished music and lyrics and was performing the song before an audience that liked it so much they laughed all the way back to their boxes.

Malvina Reynolds, 63, wife of a retired carpenter, has been writing new folk songs for about 15 years. She has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of California in Berkeley, where her thesis was about a medieval folk tale. Her first songs were sung by Pete Seeger and the group that evolved into The Weavers, and she has been supplying the folk-singing boom ever since.

Some of her work, like Bury Me in My Overalls, has become so charcoal-mellowed familiar that it is assumed to be true folk music. And of course she is a liberal and a ban-the-bomber. She wrote What Have They Done to the Rain, which Joan Baez and Pete Seeger have made into an international elegy.

“Ticky-Tacky Students.” A handsome, grey-haired woman with hazel eyes, Malvina Reynolds says she prefers to make her points quietly. “Lashing out isself-defeating,” she explains. “It raises hackles.” For all that, there are probably a lot of vertical hackles in the housing developments along Skyline Boulevard. Mrs. Reynolds herself lives in an apartment. “Conformity is not a really dreadful thing,” she says, “but it’s fun to prod it a little.”

The phrase that prods is ticky tacky. This is the essence of the lyric, and it has multiplied virally all over the country. A Harvard professor at a recent conference struck a blow at “students made out of ticky tacky.” Actress Rita Gam used the words ticky tacky at least 100 times at a Manhattan dinner party last week. A realty firm in Berkeley has a blurb claiming that it sells “distinguished houses, not ticky tacky.” After hearing the song, a professor at the University of Miami said: “I’ve been lecturing my classes about middleclass conformity for a whole semester. Here’s a song that says it all in 1½ minutes.”

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