Free To Be...You and Me -- a retrospective
If you read Boing Boing, you probably know that I was raised on Free To Be...You and Me, the brilliant book/record/film about gender equality and self expression (I even donated FreeToBeYouAndMe.com to the foundation that controls the series). So I was fascinated and delighted (and a little saddened, see below) to read Dan Kois's excellent a three-part series on Slate about the origin, aftermath and present-day status of F2BY&M.
Mary Rodgers recruited her neighbor and friend, Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick, to collaborate with her on “William’s Doll,” based on the one book suggested by children’s publisher Ursula Nordstrom that Thomas liked. (It was written by Charlotte Zolotow, Nordstrom’s protégée.) Harnick, on the advice of all the feminists he was meeting through Free To Be, read Sisterhood Is Powerful, and one chapter on the politics of cleaning inspired him to write a poem about how no one likes housework; Thomas added it to the roster. (A decision the team would later regret.) Hart’s literary agent suggested she contact children’s author Betty Miles; Hart assigned Miles an adaptation of the Greek myth of Atalanta, a princess racing against young Melanion, who desires her hand in marriage. Miles rewrote the tale’s original ending—in which Aphrodite helps Melanion win the race and get the girl—to reflect a more liberated time.
For Carol Hall's second assignment, “It’s All Right To Cry,” she went to the Little Red Schoolhouse in downtown Manhattan and quizzed her son’s classmates on their feelings about crying. “Crying gets the sad out of you,” one child suggested. “It’s like raindrops from your eyes,” said another. Chuckles Hall today: “Poor little darlings, their names are not on the copyright. Thank you, children!” Once again hoping Thomas might sing the song, Hall tailored it to her. “How am I going to say this so that in print it sounds graceful?” Hall muses now. “Marlo is a wonderful, wonderful performer, but she is such a perfectionist that I knew that singing was not something she was accustomed to doing that much. So because I thought that Marlo might sing it, I wanted to aim it to her, melodically, so I made it very, very simple.”
The song was accepted, and then, Hall says, “I was about to pop to get a third thing on the record, because nobody else had three.” (She was getting updates from her agent, Shukat.) She composed a song for Kris Kristofferson, who’d written the liner notes for her first album and sent it to him without telling anyone. “Oooh, Carole Hart was mad at me because I sent it to Kris directly.” Kristofferson turned the song down; he would later appear on the Free To Be TV special. And Hall did eventually land that third song, about friendship between boys and girls, “Glad to Have a Friend Like You,” which wound up closing the album.
The third part, which describes the reversals suffered by feminism in the last few decades, the widening wage-gap, and ongoing systematic discrimination, left me feeling very sad. I want my daughter to inherit the world we saw in Free To Be, and I'm going to work for it (and I know she'll join me).