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1daly-city-ca-smallDaly City, California

This Witness Post is about two artist: Tom Hunter and Malvina Reynolds.  I met Malvina through Tom, so I have combined them together for this recollection.  Both of these artists have now died, but their spirit lives on in their endearing music.  My reason for this Post is due to a professor at the University of Portland, Peter Thacker.  He has three times tried to entertain us with his a-cappella version of the folksong  Little Boxes.  Dr. Thacker has a kind heart and a nice idiosyncratic pitch.  The words to some songs, however, escape him from time to time. Nonetheless he sings for the class with gusto.  One of our classmates, Laura Wenrich, attached the words to Little Boxes, so when he next asks us to sing along, we can do so with authority, if we want.  So here goes.

Witness Post: Little Boxes

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Tom Hunter

Musician, educator, writer, advocate for children and beloved father, Tom Hunter was a friend of mine.  He called me up, while I was living in the Bay Area in the mid 1970’s and invited me to hear him play some children’s songs at a public library in San Francisco. I thought idea that sounded great.  As the icing on the cake, he said, “And I have a special guest who will be playing guitar with me.”  Resisting the plea to say who it was, he enticed me with, “Come and find out. You won’t be disappointed!”

I showed up at the appointed library and there were about 30 of us in attendance, including about 15 children. How could this crowd be so small?  This Tom Hunter may not be the brother of Robert Hunter, of Grateful Dead fame, but he was pretty special in lots of circles. Tom has written a slew of children’s songs, many of which I sang at a science and wilderness camp in New Mexico.  Tom was on staff at the camp in those years and he was a prolific writer, guitarist and storyteller.  Perhaps I was in for another night of “Tom stories.”

To our delight and surprise, Tom’s special guest was Malvina Reynolds.  Most famous for her song writing, her tunes were made performed by artist such as Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Rosalie Sorrels, Buffy Sainte-Marie and others.

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 Malvina Reynolds

We sat back and enjoyed the concert. That night we finished with a rousing version of Little Boxes, which I admitted to flubbing the words.  As simple and catchy the tune may be, that particular folk song had stayed in the fringes of my memory bank and out of my repertoire.  That night, however, I became a believer.  Malvina told us the story of the song, which sounded to me like something out of George Orwell’s 1984.  Since the year was 1977, the future and present seemed to blend into one.  Melvina said that she thought of the lyrics to the song while driving across the Bay Bridge with her husband, Buddy.  The couple lived in Berkeley, California, at the time and they were on the way to a concert in La Honda.  As they passed the new construction sites of thousands of nearly identical, brightly colored homes in Daly City she said, “Bud, you better take the wheel. I feel a song coming on.” The image stayed with her through that concert for a meeting of the Friends’ Committee on Legislation and the rest is history. (The lyrics are printed at the bottom of the Witness Post.)

What is the most amazing thing is that Tom Hunter and his myriad of guests, like Malvina Reynolds or Willie Nelson, performed concerts just like this one for over 40 years. He was an entertainer with a quick grin and clever laugh that induced everyone to smile. The audience could not help themselves. Hunter had a knack for bringing families and children and musicians together into an intimate crowd.  As Tom used to say, “Simply put, we need to sing more. The benefits are huge.”

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Tom wrote and sang songs to help all of us to teach our children how to tell the stories of their lives. “I want my music to be grounded in the realities of what kids and teachers know. I want it to ring true; as it helps people laugh, cry, remember, celebrate, and learn.”

Tom was a seminar presenter for Washington’s Bureau of Education and Research for over a decade and he was a Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Northwest Teachers Conference. He was an ever-popular presenter at countless statewide and national events for the National Association for the Education of Young Children

In the introduction to his book of essays, “Visits to the Heart of Education: Remembering What’s Important,” Hunter wrote, “If I bring reminders of what’s important in education, they come from finding those moments when the heart shows up, moments that peek around the corner and need to be invited farther into the room so we can see them. Such moments might seem ordinary but they are way too important to be captured in test scores. They fill teachers (and sometimes children) to overflowing.”

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Hunter was also a huge advocate for teachers. He encouraged them to follow their hearts and realize the importance and value in sharing who they are.  His message consistently urged teachers to to be “as human as human can be” with their students. This warm-hearted man nudged teachers to allow room for children to be big and loud, up and down, singing and dancing their songs. He inspired everyone to recognize the small, everyday moments filled with joy or insight as he repeatedly advised teachers that “It matters!”

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It Matters Quilt

Some of my favorite Tom Hunter songs include: My Washing Machine Eats Socks, The Shirt Song, and There’s a Monster in My Closet. Perhaps his best known song is Rock Me To Sleep, which has become an old standard at the camp in New Mexico.  The song is about a man who is “tired of trying to figure things out, and tired of being so strong.” (Full lyrics are below.)

In 2008 Tom Hunter was stricken suddenly with a fatal and rare neuro-degenerative ailment called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He died at his home in his Bellingham, WA surrounded by his family. According to friends and relatives of the Hunter’s, Tom’s last few weeks were filled with the same grace and zeal he lived his whole life. His wife, Gwen, and adult children, Aeden and Irene, surrounded him with songs, poems, images, and stories he loved as well as with messages of love from the multitudes of people of all ages with whom he had made friends. As his speech and sight declined Tom left his family with one more phrase: “Keep it going!”

The Governor of Washington, declared October 24, 2008, as Tom Hunter Day: A Day For Singing!

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Near Daly City, California

Lyrics of the song, Little Boxes

The words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1962 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1990.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,1
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

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Lyrics to the Song, Rock Me to Sleep

Song Copyright 1977, Tom Hunter

 

All I can hear are the crickets

And the whistle from some lonely freight

I’ve been working so hard to make everything right

But for now it’ll just have to wait

CHORUS:

`Cause tonight I’d like you to rock me to sleep

I’d like you to sing me a song’

I’m tired of trying to figure things out

And I’m tired of being so strong

I’ve never been too good at asking

I’m more apt to do it alone

And it’s strange how a lot of us think something’s wrong

If we can’t do it all on our own

CHORUS

It’s funny how times when you’re hurting

Make what’s so familiar seem strange

So when you need help, it’s hardest to ask

And it always takes so long to change

CHORUS

 

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Additional Footnotes:

1. The term “ticky tacky” is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary, and credited to Malvina Reynolds.

2. Pete Seeger’s recording of Little Boxes reached as high as number seventy on Billboard and number seventy-two on Cashbox in early 1964.

3. The Womenfolk’s version of Little Boxes peaked at number eighty-three on Billboard and number ninety-six on Cashbox in May 1964.

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