Singer/songwriter Malvina Reynolds is best remembered for her Daly City-inspired song “Little Boxes,” a gently mocking ode to bourgeois conformity that helped define the early 1960s folk music revival.
“Little Boxes” reached a whole new audience as the opening theme for the HBO series Weeds, tying Reynolds more tightly than ever to the tune, but a new Shotgun Players production demonstrates that her songbook doesn’t fit comfortably in a small container.
Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., live Dec. 2-26, livestreamed Dec. 10-17
Created by prolific actress Beth Wilmurt, a longtime Shotgun mainstay, The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World is a two-person workshop production that premieres on the Ashby Stage Dec. 2-26 (and will also be presented via a Berkeley Community Media collaboration in high-definition, cinema-quality livestream performances Dec. 10-17).
More a revue than a biography, The Cassandra Sessions unfolds in the recording studio as Reynolds cuts an album with sound engineer Jake Rodriguez, the production’s co-creator. “There’s a set list and we’re working our way through it,” said Wilmurt, whose most recent Shotgun credits include directing Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, Kill the Debbie Downers! and Nora, and acting in Hamlet and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which coincidentally premiered within months of Reynolds’ writing “Little Boxes”).
Wilmurt made it clear that The Cassandra Sessions is a work in progress with a lot of different ideas bumping around, including the Greek myth of Cassandra, a prophet unheeded, and the isolation of the recording studio echoing the isolation of the pandemic lockdown. At this point in the production though the themes are more subtext that direct references.
“There is talk, and it’s related to the kind of thing you’d hear in a recording session,” she said. “‘Let’s do another take,’ or ‘Let’s lay down the bass line.’ There are a few breakout moments where we’re chitchatting on a break. It’s very spare dialogue. I want to make sure the lines resonate, so you hear it in a deeper way. I’m hoping to find those sentences.”
Shotgun Players seems like an ideal venue for a production celebrating Reynolds, who was a ubiquitous presence in Berkeley for decades as an integral part of the progressive activist community. Born Malvina Milder in San Francisco in 1900 to Jewish immigrant parents, she was weaned on radical politics. Her father helped start the socialist weekly newspaper The Revolt and was deeply involved in organizing against U.S. involvement in the Great War in Europe, one of the first causes that brought Reynolds into the streets.
After a family friend, labor organizer Tom Mooney, was convicted for a bombing that killed 10 people at the 1916 pro-intervention San Francisco Preparedness Day rally (charges he was pardoned for after serving 22 years), Reynolds studied violin with Mooney’s wife, Rena, “who was teaching classes to survive after being acquitted in her husband’s trial,” according to Gabriel San Roman’s 2016 OC Weekly cover story “The Life and Times of Malvina Reynolds, Long Beach’s Most Legendary (and Hated) Folk Singer.”
The family relocated to the Long Beach area after their anti-war activism made employment hard to come by in the Bay Area. But Southern California presented its own hazards for radical activists. San Roman’s story details a 1932 Ku Klux Klan attack on the family in Long Beach that targeted the Milder clan because of their Communist Party affiliation and support for the Black teenagers wrongly accused of raping two white women in what was known as the Scottsboro Boys case. The assault left her even more determined to pursue racial justice.
Reynolds first connected with leftist folk singers like Earl Robinson and Pete Seeger while living in Long Beach in the late 1940s, but her ties to Berkeley ran very deep. Reynolds earned three degrees from Cal, culminating with a literature doctorate in 1939 (her thesis was on the late 13th century chivalric poem Amis and Amiloun). When she decided to focus on songwriting in her early 50s she returned to Berkeley and once again enrolled at Cal, studying music theory.
By 1959 her reputation as a songwriter was spreading, buoyed initially by Harry Belafonte’s recording of “Turn Around,” her lullaby that deftly captures a parent’s experience 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 attraction speaks to the timeless quality of Reynolds’ writing. By the mid-1960s her songs were regularly reaching the pop charts, with multiple artists recording her lament about nuclear fallout, “What Have They Done to the Rain,” her civil rights anthem “It Isn’t Nice,” her children’s song “Morningtown Ride,” and of course “Little Boxes,” which gave Pete Seeger his only gold record.
In Berkeley she was such a presence that she came to be known as the Muse of Parker Street, which referenced her address and the title of her 1967 book of songs. For several years in the ‘60s she offered regular commentaries on KPFA, while ardently supporting labor struggles and civil rights campaigns such as the anti-war and women’s movements. Berkeley Councilmember Susan Wengraf made a short documentary about Reynolds, Love It Like a Fool, a few years before the songwriter’s death in 1978.
A folk music fan, Wilmurt was generally aware of Reynolds’ work before she started her other career track 20 years ago, directing the children’s choirs at the Community Music Center in San Francisco. Searching through some cabinets at the CMC she found a pile of Malvina Reynolds songbooks, and she quickly started teaching some of the tunes to her choirs.
“Early on we did her song ‘Quiet,’ which might have been because they were a little noisy, and it was a song that settled them down a bit,” Wilmurt recalled. “It’s a children’s song but after a while I started understanding the layers of meaning. We don’t have to have something to say at all times. A little later one that I liked to use was ‘[From] Way Up Here’ about seeing the Earth from space. Pete Seeger wrote the music, and she wrote the words. It’s a quirky piece, like a lot 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 gig from singer/songwriter Candace Forest, a good friend and musical collaborator with Reynold’s daughter, Berkeley singer/songwriter Nancy Schimmel. Through Forest she got to know Schimmel, who’s carved out her own niche in the family tradition, supporting social movements and writing children’s songs.
Wilmurt got a new perspective on Reynolds’ songs about six years ago when she added directing older adult choirs at CMC to her bailiwick. Hitting 50 herself also inflected the way she saw Reynolds achievements as a late-blooming artist. “I got inspired by that and started bringing in her songs to the older adult choir. I took a deeper dive and found that a lot of her adult songs had a playful edge. She seemed perfect for older adults and for kids.”
In the months before the pandemic Wilmurt was planning an intergenerational event, bringing the kids and seniors together to perform Reynolds’ music. The Cassandra Sessions partly grew out of that derailed project. She’s hoping the Shotgun production continues to evolve.
“I’m excited about other forms that this might take,” she said. “I’m doing this by myself. I’m playing piano and ukulele, laying down some tracks. Making music in community is what she was all about. I’m hoping this is the beginning of something bigger. I have hopes that it can become a community project.”