One of the things that makes me awfully glad that I’ve switched away from doing a lot of social commentary to doing more reviews is the abatement of my cynicism. You can only immerse yourself in the world of politics and social policy for so long without feeling like you’ve been taking regular baths in the sewage.
It really becomes difficult to hold on to any sort of optimism about the world, life or anything when you’re constantly writing about the stupidity of politicians, no matter what your personal politics are. Rail against anyone for too long and you end up sounding like a recording repeating the same stuff over and over again.
But when you’re reviewing a lot of books and music, as I’ve been doing recently, you are always getting something different to either read or hear on an almost daily basis. Faced with that amount of creative output it’s hard not be buoyed even slightly and tp regain some of your optimism about the human race. If we can still be creating this much interesting and novel material, then there has to be some hope for us yet.
There are occasions when you review material where it’s more than just the creative energy involved that washes away the cynicism of this age, and replaces it with feelings of cheerful goodwill that you wouldn’t think possible. It usually happens for me when I’m reviewing a re-issue of something from at least 30 years ago, if not more.
While too much has been made of the supposed free lifestyle of the sixties and the early seventies, there is no denying that the winds of change and optimism blew a whole lot stronger then than they do now. People saw possibilities and instead of grousing about this and that or complaining about the government (although I’m sure there was plenty of that too) some of them actually did something about trying to make a difference or working for change.
I’m not even talking about big political statements or anything like that. But a project that reflected a belief that individuals can make a difference in how we treat each other or how the world works. An example of one such work has just been re-released by Sony through its Legacy series, the 1972 children’s album Free To Be…You And Me.
This collection of 19 short songs, stories, and poems was put together as a means of telling children that they didn’t need to play the roles that their parents did. The world is a huge and exciting place and you shouldn’t limit yourself to believing that just because of how you look and what gender you are that you have to be a certain way.
Now in the 34 years since Marlo Thomas conceived the idea for this album the world has changed a few times, so obviously some of the material sounds a little dated and a little silly, but a good deal of it is as applicable today as it was in 1972. Children still are confused as to questions of identity, will still question their own value as individuals, and will wonder where they fit into this world.
Each track tries to address those concerns, never through preaching, but by simple anecdotes, funny stories, and cheerful songs. Mainly though this is a disc about equality of the sexes. It doesn’t make anybody a villain or point any fingers of blame; what it does do is try to stand some preconceived notions on their head.
I think the title song “Free To Be…You And Me is still one of the best pieces of pop music ever produced with young people in mind. Written by Stephen Lawrence and Bruce Hart, performed by The New Seekers, it promises a world where children are free of the constraints that tied their parents into place.
Every boy in this land/Grows to be his own man./In this land, every girl/Grows to be her own woman/ Take my hand come with me/Where the children are free/Come with me-take my hand/And we’ll run…To a land where the river runs free/To a land through the green country/To a land of a shining sea/To a land where the horses run free/To a land where the children are free/And you and me/Are free to be/You and Me. (“Free To Be…You And Me” Lawrence and Hart. 1972)
Musically it’s pretty typically top forty sounding from its time period, sort of folk/pop/rock and obviously written to sung along with. But I’ve always love the images it provokes of openness and freedom. The really great think about this song is that it presumes intelligence among its listeners, and encourages them to use their imaginations.
Imagine yourself as an 11-yearold who’s been told that they have to be a certain way, or emulate a certain person, up until now, all of a sudden hearing that there is a place where you can be just yourself. Could there be a more radical notion to tell a kid that he or she doesn’t have to conform, doesn’t have to be just like everybody else?
Throughout the album the performers and the writers use a combination of humour and genuine sincerity to expand a child’s perspective on everything from gender stereotypes, girls can’t keep a secret and boys are impatient; there’s nothing wrong with crying (“It’s All Right To Cry” is sung by ex-football player Rosie Grier), a warning about the dangers of being seduced into believing housework can be fun (“Housework” with Carol Channing talking about the only people who like housework are the actors being paid to advertise cleaning products), and the importance of having friends who accept you for what you are (“Dudley Pippin And His No-Friend”).
Although things have changed in that people don’t buy into gender specific roles, as much any more, the other topics raised on this CD are still universal to children growing up. In fact some of them are probably even more important than ever. More and more it seems that conformity is important; whether it wearing the right clothes, listening to the right music, or having the right opinion, individuality is fighting a losing battle.
The only problem is that this CD is it’s a little too much of preaching to the converted for it to have a wide-ranging effect. It can probably be enjoyed and made use of by families whose beliefs already are imparting that information to their children, but the unsophisticated nature of the music might not appeal the child who listens to rap and plays video games.
To my forty-something ears these tracks sound great, if a little dated musically. But to kids who have been listening to even the mildest of rap, this is going to seem tame beyond belief. This is a disc that not only needs to be re-issued but also should be updated — re-do the tracks with contemporary performers who have appeal to today’s children.
In an era when cynicism is rampant, it is a breath of fresh air to remember there were times when people were far more optimistic. Maybe they had more reasons to be optimistic then we do now, I don’t know. But that doesn’t change the fact that the messages imparted on Free To Be…You And Me are as valuable today as they were back in 1972. It just a shame that the music is being wasted on people my age.