Friday, February 5, 2010

Music: Malvina Reynolds / Little Boxes

(First emailed 17.01.2009)
“Do you know a song about houses made of ticky tacky?” my 15 year old Honourable Number Two son asked. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky..” I began singing, as my thoughts drifted back to the simpler, bygone 1960’s. Then I stopped and asked how he knew it. “It’s used in Weeds all the time,” he said, “and it’s been going around in my head.” He suggested that I do a post on Little Boxes and, as I headed up the stairs singing it, honourable 19 year old Number One Son called out “Have you been watching Weeds?”
Now I confess from the outset that the only acquaintance I have with weeds is that you pull them out of gardens, often getting told off by honourable wife because what looked like a weed turned out to be a valued plant. We therefore now have a division of labour in the garden where I am free to do anything except pruning or weeding, unless the weeding is pulling up the green bits between the pavers.
With mouse in hand I conducted some indepth research via Wikipedia and found that Weeds is a TV show in which a suburban mum becomes the local neighbourhood pot dealer after her husband unexpectedly dies. She lives in a California suburb where each house and street looks exactly like every other house and street in the area, a bit like the images in Edward Scissorhands. For the first season Malvina Reynolds, the author and original performer of the song, was heard singing the number for the introduction. Seasons 2 and 3 use different performers singing the number, including Joan Baez, Regina Spektor, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Pete Seeger and Billy Bob Thornton.
The versions of the song by the above performers can all be located on YouTube. Start with Malvina Reynolds (although I’m not fond of her version) at
and refer to the menu for the others. I like the Pete Seeger and Billy Bob Thornton versions.
It’s interesting that in one comment  for the Malvina Reynolds clip, someone has asked what the song means and that someone else has replied “It’s about boxes of weed.”
The song was a protest against what in the US was known as “cookie cutter” or “tract” housing. This was brought about by one William Levitt who, in the years following WW2, applied the Henry Ford mass assembly line philosophy and techniques to housing so as to overcome the housing shortage. Using identical lot sizes, floor plans, housing designs and uniform materials, Levitt created whole estates of identical looking homes at cheap prices and with quick construction. Levitt insisted in naming each suburb so created Levittown and, by his death in 1994, there were Levittowns all over the US and in some foreign countries. According to him: “Any fool can build a house, what counts is how many you can sell for how little.”
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

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.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
Apparently the term “ticky tacky” is now in the Oxford Dictionary and means sleazy or shoddy material used in the construction of look-alike housing.

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