I was talking the other day about music that contributed to social change. Thanks to Marlo Thomas and other like-minded progressives who created that marvelous children’s record, we moved forward (resisting the best efforts of conservatives and reactionaries aka right-wing Republicans) marching toward personal, social, racial and sexual freedom. “Free to Be You and Me” not only embodied those changes but was their impetus. That recording sang out musical truths – loud and clear, ringing social truths for all to hear.
Blossoming during social revolution of the 60’s which left “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best” and “I Remember Mama” in the dust, a new energy emerged. A brand new social fabric sprang from the words and sounds of a different kind of recording fostering a different kind of TV programming, affecting families, schools, churches and the financial marketplace. Every ‘following generation’ simply takes changes in technology and ideology for granted; doomed forever to the kind of time-blindness that strikes generations and nations alike. ‘You mean you didn’t have smart phones?’
Historians can write and film producers can portray, but no one can know what it was like to be in a world that’s different from the one they live in. The intrinsic value of first-hand experience simply cannot be underestimated. It is, in fact, one of the key influences affecting every society. Each subsequent generation absorbs the changes from the previous ones: ideas, values, prejudices, hatreds, fears, beliefs, traditions, but never fully understands them. Social change is like a constantly evolving organism that consumes and creates, incorporating, digesting and re-creating. Everything flows from experience generated by time.
During the late 50’s early 60’s rigid social and gender roles were not only mandated they were unquestioned. There were rare exceptions; those who ventured outside the acceptable standard met painful social consequences. But some creative few were able to turn those social norms around as if staring into a giant kaleidoscope; they could envision millions of pieces moving and turning, forming and re-forming different patterns over time. Every great inventor, explorer, scientist or architect has the ability to do this, to turn what is around and discover what can be.
That’s what Marlo Thomas and those like her did. They took a step into the unknown and created a new way of thinking. I know when my children were small I played that record (yes, the big round kind) over and over again. And I sang those songs with the fervent belief of the newly converted. Those songs and those little vignettes filled me with hope and a passion for social change; an ardent hope that those songs would instill those truths in my children and all the children who heard them; a passion that matched what had been building for years sculpted by my experience in the society that was. I believed in those messages of change more than I fully realized at that time. For me, and I think for others, they heralded a new world, a world in which people really could be free to be who they were, not who others wanted them to be. They really could be open to differences and change, free to express individual feelings and needs and preferences; free from stereotypic straightjackets. Boys could cry and girls could be strong. Yes, we sang, it was time to break gender stereotypes that had become so confining. It was time. Maybe it hadn’t been time before, but now it was time.
Those songs and that time of social and political revolution formed the core of my adult self. With a spirited, youthful JFK in the White House and an inspirational Martin Luther King on the move we were going to be a new society. A new world in which hope and change existed and people were free to make the world a better place.