Fascinating music

Malvina Reynolds’ music doesn’t fit in a small box

Beth Wilmurt’s two-person production on the Ashby stage centers around the music of Malvina Reynolds. Credit: Robbie Sweeney

Singer and songwriter Malvina Reynolds is best known for her Daly City-inspired song “Little Boxes”, a gently mocking ode to bourgeois conformism that helped define the revival of folk music in the early 1960s.

“Little Boxes” Reached A Whole New Audience As HBO Series Opening Theme Weeds, attaching Reynolds to the tune more than ever, but a new production from Shotgun Players shows that his songbook doesn’t fit comfortably in a small container.

Created by prolific actress Beth Wilmurt, a longtime mainstay of the shotgun, Cassandra sessions: recording this world is a two-person workshop production that will premiere on the Ashby Stage from December 2-26 (and will also be presented via a collaboration with Berkeley Community Media in cinema-quality high-definition live performances from December 10 to December 17).

More a review than a biography, Cassandre sessions takes place in the recording studio as Reynolds records an album with sound engineer Jake Rodriguez, the production’s co-creator. “There’s a list established and we’re working on it,” said Wilmurt, whose most recent Shotgun credits include directing. Edward Gant’s incredible feats of loneliness, Kill the Debbie Downers! and Nora, and acting in Hamlet and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which was created by coincidence a few months after Reynolds wrote “Little Boxes”).

Wilmurt clarified that Cassandre sessions is a work in progress with a lot of different ideas jostling each other, including the Greek myth of Cassandra, an ignored prophet, and the isolation of the recording studio echoing the isolation of the pandemic lockdown. At this point in production, the themes are more sub-texts than direct references.

“There are discussions, and it’s related to the kind of thing you would have here in a recording session,” she said. “‘Let’s do another take’ or ‘Leave the bassline. There are a few moments of escape where we chat during a break. It’s a very sober dialogue. I want to make sure the lines resonate so that you hear them in a deeper way. I hope to find these sentences.

Shotgun Players seems like a perfect venue for a production celebrating Reynolds, who was a ubiquitous presence in Berkeley for decades as an integral part of the progressive militant community. Born Malvina Milder in San Francisco in 1900 to immigrant Jewish parents, she was weaned from radical politics. His father helped start the socialist weekly The revolt and was deeply involved in organizing against US involvement in the Great War in Europe, one of the earliest causes that brought Reynolds to the streets.

After a family friend, union organizer Tom Mooney, was convicted of a bombing that killed 10 people during the San Francisco pro-intervention rally in 1916 (charges for which he was pardoned after serving 22 years), Reynolds studied violin with Mooney’s wife Rena, “who taught lessons to survive after being acquitted in her husband’s trial,” according to Gabriel San Roman from 2016 OC Weekly cover story “The life and times of Malvina Reynolds, Long Beach’s most legendary (and hated) folk singer.”

The family moved to the Long Beach area after their anti-war activism made employment in the Bay Area difficult. But Southern California presented its own dangers for radical activists. The San Roman story details a Ku Klux Klan attack on the family in Long Beach in 1932 that targeted the Milder clan because of their Communist Party affiliation and support for black teens wrongly accused of raping two women white in what was known as the Scottsboro Boys affair. The assault left her even more determined to pursue racial justice.

Reynolds first connected with left-wing folk singers like Earl Robinson and Pete Seeger while living in Long Beach in the late 1940s, but her connection to Berkeley ran very deep. Reynolds earned three degrees from Cal, culminating in a doctorate in literature in 1939 (his thesis was on the late 13th century chivalrous poem Friends and Amiloun). When she decided to focus on songwriting in her early fifties, she returned to Berkeley and again enrolled at Cal to study music theory.

By 1959 his reputation as a songwriter was spreading, supported initially by Harry Belafonte’s recording of “Turn Around,” his lullaby that skillfully captures the experience of a parent watching their child grow up. Recorded by more than a dozen artists over half a century, from the Kingston Trio and Josh White to Diana Ross and Rosemary Clooney, its enduring appeal is a testament to the timeless quality of Reynolds’ writing. By the mid-1960s, his songs regularly hit the pop charts, with several artists recording his nuclear fallout lament, “What Have They Done to the Rain”, his civil rights anthem “It Isn’t Nice,” his song for kids “Morningtown Ride”, and of course “Little Boxes”, which gave Pete Seeger his only gold record.

In Berkeley, she was so present that she became the Muse of Parker Street, in reference to her address and the title of her 1967 songbook. For several years in the 1960s, she offered regular commentaries on KPFA , while ardently supporting trade union struggles and civil rights campaigns such as anti-war and feminist movements. Berkeley board member Susan Wengraf made a short documentary about Reynolds, Love him like a fool, a few years before the songwriter’s death in 1978.

A fan of folk music, Wilmurt was generally familiar with Reynolds’ work before starting his other career 20 years ago, leading the children’s choirs at the Community Music Center in San Francisco. Rummaging through the cupboards at the CMC, she found a stack of Malvina Reynolds songbooks and she quickly began teaching some tunes to her backing vocals.

“At first we did his song ‘Quiet’, which maybe was because they were a bit loud, and it was a song that calmed them down a bit,” Wilmurt recalls. “It’s a children’s song, but after a while I started to understand the layers of meaning. We don’t have have something to say anytime. A little later the one I liked to use was'[From] Way Up Here ‘to see Earth from space. Pete Seeger wrote the music and she wrote the lyrics. It’s a quirky track, like many of her songs, very specific, like she’s writing about something she read in the newspaper that day.

Wilmurt had taken over the children’s choir concert from singer / songwriter Candace Forest, a good friend and musical collaborator of Reynold’s daughter, Berkeley singer / songwriter Nancy Schimmel. Thanks to Forest, she got to know Schimmel, who carved out a place for himself in the family tradition, supporting social movements and writing songs for children.

Wilmurt had a new perspective on Reynolds songs about six years ago when she added the CMC senior adult choir conducting to her bailiwick. Reaching 50 herself also shifted the way she viewed Reynolds’ accomplishments as a late-blooming artist. “I took inspiration from that and started bringing his songs to the older adult choir. I took a deeper dive and found that a lot of his adult songs had a playful side to it. She seemed perfect for older adults and for children.

In the months leading up to the pandemic, Wilmurt was planning an intergenerational event, bringing together children and the elderly to perform Reynolds’ music. Cassandre sessions was partly born out of this derailed project. She hopes the production of Shotgun continues to evolve.

“I’m excited about the other forms this could take,” she said. “I do this on my own. I play the piano and the ukulele, I prepare songs. Making music in community, that’s what it was. Hope this is the start of something bigger. I hope this can become a community project.

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Andrew Gilbert, originally from Los Angeles, is a longtime arts and culture journalist who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.

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