The last time I looked, the oldest person to have a a “chart-topping hit” was Louis Armstrong. In 1964, he knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Hello, Dolly!”, which gave the 63-year-old performer a U.S. record as the oldest artist to have a #1 song.
Some people have heard of Malvina Reynolds — many more haven’t. This video is taken from a television show and Malvina’s clear bell-like time is still a wonder despite what audio technology has taken away.
I also like the peaceful confidence that radiates from her.
Malvina Milder was born in San Francisco to two Jewish immigrants and socialist opponents of World War I, David and Abagail Milder. Malvina married William Reynolds, a carpenter and devout communist organizer, in 1934 and had one child, Nancy Reynolds (a songwriter and performer in her own right), in 1935. She had earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and later went on to earn her doctorate there, finishing her dissertation in 1938.
Though she played violin in a dance band in her twenties, she began her songwriting career late in life. She was in her late 40s when she met Earl Robinson,Pete Seeger and other folk singers and songwriters. She returned to school at UC Berkeley, where she studied music theory. She went on to write several popular songs, including “Little Boxes”, “What Have They Done to the Rain”, recorded by The Searchers and Joan Baez (about nuclear fallout), “It Isn’t Nice” (a civil rights anthem), “Turn Around” (about children growing up, later sung by Harry Belafonte), and “There’s a Bottom Below” (about depression). Reynolds was also a noted composer of children’s songs, including “Magic Penny” and “Morningtown Ride”, a top 5 UK single (December 66) recorded by The Seekers.
Four collections of her music are available on compact disc. The Smithsonian Folkways label released Another County Heard From (Folkways 02524) and Ear to the Ground (Smithsonian Folkways 40124), and the Omni Recording Corporation in Australia issued Malvina Reynolds (Omni 112) and “Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth” (Omni 114).
A film biography, Love It Like a Fool, was made a few years before she died in 1978.
Reynolds’ most famous song, “Little Boxes” (made famous by Pete Seeger), has enjoyed renewed popularity by being featured in Showtime’s TV series Weeds. “Little Boxes” was inspired visually by the houses of Daly City, California. Nancy Reynolds, daughter of Malvina Reynolds, explains:
- “My mother and father were driving South from San Francisco through Daly City when my mom got the idea for the song. She asked my dad to take the wheel, and she wrote it on the way to the gathering in La Honda where she was going to sing for the Friends Committee on Legislation. When Time Magazine (I think, maybe Newsweek) wanted a photo of her pointing to the very place, she couldn’t find those houses because so many more had been built around them that the hillsides were totally covered.”
In her later years, Reynolds contributed both songs and material to PBS’s “Sesame Street” program. She occasionally appeared on the show as a character called “Kate.”
They don’t know my head’s full of me
And that I have my own special thing,
And there’s no hole in my head.
- Song No Hole In My Head