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October 22, 2012 8:09 AM   Subscribe

On the 40th anniversary of the release of "Free To Be... You and Me," a three-part piece in Slate examines the genesis and impact of this influential album and its accompanying TV special.
posted by Horace Rumpole (56 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Jesus, now I have that song running through my head again. It was a pleasant forty-year hiatus.
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:19 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


That was one of the records we listened to as kids (along with the soundtrack to "Hair", and records by the likes of Burl Ives and Rolf Harris.) Then just last week I picked up a copy at a thrift store. Great stuff. Memorable bits: Carrol Channing dissing advertizing, and Mel Brooks wanting to grow up to be a cocktail waitress.
posted by jetsetsc at 8:20 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I never owned the album, but I watched the TV special in school at least once a year from Kindergarten through 5th grade, and I can't help but feel that we've gone backward in some ways. Imagine the uproar from FOX if they showed such blatant "left-wing brainwashing" to kids in 2012...
posted by JoanArkham at 8:27 AM on October 22, 2012 [16 favorites]


IT'S ALRIGHT TO CRY
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:33 AM on October 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


I had a well-worn copy of the album as a kid. I'm still looking out for Mister Mister.

I never saw the television show except through youtube clips in recent years.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 8:38 AM on October 22, 2012


My aunt gave me a copy of the album when I was six, and I can trace so damn much of my mental makeup to that album.

As soon as I knew she was "pending," I resolved to get my niece a copy when she turned six.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


ROSEY GRIER'S NEEDLEPOINT FOR MEN
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:39 AM on October 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh man, I still have this on vinyl sitting somewhere in my storage unit. WHERE IS MY FISHER-PRICE BATTERY-OPERATED PICNIC TURNTABLE.
posted by elizardbits at 8:40 AM on October 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


brb wasting money on ebay
posted by elizardbits at 8:43 AM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


So I identified with Dudley Pippin's bad day at nursery school, and "It's All Right To Cry" still inspires. "Sisters and Brothers" is a great song to dance to. And I enjoyed the stories of "Ladies First" and "Atalanta."

At the other end of the spectrum "Girl Land" terrified me for some reason (the whole creepy circus/carnival barker thing) and I was a boy with a doll and a name similar to William so that family/friends sang "William Has a Doll" to me in mocking tones leading to feelings opposite of what the song intended regarding dolls.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 8:49 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


previously
posted by Egg Shen at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2012


I was so fucking sick of this record by the end of 3rd grade. ENOUGH. Can we please hear "Puff The Magic Dragon" or anything else?
posted by thelonius at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2012


This was probably just a bit TOO radical for my parents to get for me during my formative years. They still don't seem to quite get how much of an impact the very early years of Sesame Street (I was born in '68, it premiered in '69) and other PBS programming had on me, and how inclusive and basically radical it was for its time. But something like this... was light years further than my parents would have consciously chosen to go.

It's a shame, too. So much of who I am today was shaped by things I took in as a child. Not just Sesame Street, but the Peter Paul & Mommy album, or the Dr. Seuss Cat In The Hat Songbook record, or even the Kellogg's cereal mail-in-offer Pufnstuf soundtrack 45... These are things I constantly find echoing through my adult life.

It seems like this would have been an excellent thing to also have rattling around my skull, even as I hit my mid-40s.

So, for all those parents who had this in their household for their kids: thank you. I think you helped plant seeds which benefit the world we live in today. I only hope those seeds are being replanted in fresh soil, so progress can continue across the generations to come.
posted by hippybear at 8:52 AM on October 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm reading the comments in the "previously" link, and hearing comments from people who have played it for their own kids and had their kids respond "what do you mean boys can't play with dolls and girls can't play sports?" And the concensus is that "maybe we don't need this any more".

But then a few threads down in my recent activity is the ongoing thread about the creepshots on Reddit, with links to articles discussing the sexist ways pre-teen and teenage girls are treated online, and I wonder just how true that is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on October 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


Imagine the uproar from FOX if they showed such blatant "left-wing brainwashing" to kids in 2012...

Hee hee. Imagine, my mom used this album to teach school with way back in the day. Mind you, I'm in Canada.
posted by LN at 8:59 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back around 1980, I told my granny that I was going to be a doctor when I grew up. She told me I would make a great nurse. Then I told her I was going to be an astronaut.

And that is how I became the favorite grandchild.
posted by kamikazegopher at 9:01 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now that I think about it, between FTBYAM and That Girl, Marlo Thomas was probably one of the best role models I had growing up.

ROSEY GRIER'S NEEDLEPOINT FOR MEN

This may sound funny, but it was a huge deal at the time. Huge.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:18 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I really think It's All Right to Cry is the only enduringly good song on the album, but I love the stories still.

My elementary school showed us this at least once a year (the TV special). The puppet babies freaked me out a little. A lot of it went over my head.

I remember being mad that Atalanta didn't marry whatshisname at the end....I mean great, you won the race, now marry the prince, that's what princesses do, lady! My head had already been stuffed full of Cinderella.

It's easy to see the flaws in it, but it's also important to remember this came out in the era of variety shows and the Star Wars Holiday Special.
posted by emjaybee at 9:26 AM on October 22, 2012


Free To Be... made its way into plenty of US classrooms in the mid-early 1970s as well; it was easily the most popular record in all three of my first public school classrooms. [No. 2 was Come on and ZOOM, and No. 3 was Multiplication Rock.]

As a very young boy with only female friends and a percolating sense that he might be gay, Free To Be... contained exactly the kinds of messages I needed to hear to keep me well-adjusted and sane. So for that, I'll always be grateful to Marlo and friends.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:38 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm reading the comments in the "previously" link, and hearing comments from people who have played it for their own kids and had their kids respond "what do you mean boys can't play with dolls and girls can't play sports?" And the concensus is that "maybe we don't need this any more".

My kids were some of the ones with that reaction. I certainly wouldn't say we don't still need feminism. But there are a few things documented on the album that are, thankfully, disappearing. It's pretty much taken for granted now that girls are able to play sports and that sports are an OK thing for girls to do. (Women were allowed to run in the Boston Marathon for the first time in 1972, the same year that girls were first listening to the story of Atalanta on this album.)

I mostly found it amusing that there were a few sexist stereotypes that my kids had literally never heard of before listening to this progressive, feminist album.
posted by straight at 9:46 AM on October 22, 2012


I actually read the sequel, "Free to Be... A Family" first; had the book and accompanying cassette tape. This was late 80s/early 90s. I would love to have it now - that book was a huge part of my early reading experience.
posted by agress at 9:50 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, that's true, straight; but that strength of sense of self that girls have when they're younger now somehow gets eroded when they get to be twelve or thirteen. I lost a lot of it myself, even with Marlo Thomas behind me. And I don't know why.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:51 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


that strength of sense of self that girls have when they're younger now somehow gets eroded when they get to be twelve or thirteen ...

Not just girls.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2012


I love this quote from Grier:
Even today, he gets upset when discussing the song. “What right does someone have to tell a little baby boy not to cry because he’s a grown man?” he asks me. “The hurt is just as bad, the pain is just as bad, there’s no feeling different than the girls. So why should he have to hold it in and be sniffing and trying not to cry? Because they’re going to make fun of him? Forget all that, man. If you want to cry, cry.”
posted by Karmakaze at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


> that strength of sense of self that girls have when they're younger now somehow gets eroded when they get to be twelve or thirteen ...

Not just girls.


And that's why we still need this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


I had to visit the progressive family up the street to listen to this album. We'd sit in my friend's room and play it over and over.

So, of course, I bought this cd for my own kids, along with Really Rosie. Good road trip music.
posted by Fichereader at 9:55 AM on October 22, 2012


Wore the grooves out of my copy on my bad-ass, big-boy stereo as a wee lad of the 70s. Promptly forgot about it sometime on the cusp of middle school. Came back to it about seven years ago when I was mixing late-night radio shows and recalled the Ladies First story as a recording but couldn't remember where it came from. Several seconds later--thank, Internet!--I had the sample I wanted and the awesome mix it inspired.

Next day at the used record store, I picked up the whole album. Later found the accompanying book at a used book store. I'll still fire that up in a fit of nostalgia on occasion.

And, yeah, totally and completely radical and just as formative. Not sure my folks realized what kind of liberal hippy scum they were raising. My niece is just getting there age-wise. I think I have next year's birthday present all lined up. They publish this on CD, right?
posted by Fezboy! at 10:07 AM on October 22, 2012


They publish this on CD, right?

Yep.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:12 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


D:

I can't imagine listening to this without the vinyly crackles.
posted by elizardbits at 10:14 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to own a copy of Rosey Grier's Needlepoint for Men. Because, of course, of this album.

Watching Michael Jackson sing, "We don't have to cha-ange at allll..." is kind of surreal.

This was also my first exposure to the wonder that is Carol Channing. I really need to print out Housework and put it on my bedroom wall. You know, so my husband sees it while he does the laundry.
posted by Madamina at 10:15 AM on October 22, 2012


ALSO!

The gender-equality thing was old hat to me, being several years into Stories for Free Children and the like. (Did that stop my mother from telling me I was being unladylike? No.)

But what I remember quite vividly was the fuss my second-grade teacher made over the words of "Brothers and Sisters" -- not the actual content, mind you, but the colloquialism. I recall any number of sessions in which my very proper liberal-Quaker-school teacher played the song for us, then followed it immediately with a carefully enunciated, "Aren't we, everyone! Aren't we happy -- AREN'T WE!"

Aren't we?
posted by Madamina at 10:20 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


>Not just girls.

And that's why we still need this.


I'm not quite sure what you mean by that.

Do you mean, "Yes, indeed, the messages on this album--that it is okay for boys to express their feelings, play with dolls, etc.--is a message that does still need to be sent."

Or do you mean, "Christ, what an asshole"?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:25 AM on October 22, 2012


My kids listen to this album over and over and over and over and over and over...
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:32 AM on October 22, 2012


I'm not quite sure what you mean by that.

Do you mean, "Yes, indeed, the messages on this album--that it is okay for boys to express their feelings, play with dolls, etc.--is a message that does still need to be sent."


This.

And moreover, it is a message that needs to be re-taught, over and over, to the same children - in greater depth as they age. We have indeed come a long way, but we have so, so much further to go.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:34 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Drat, I was putting together a post on this all morning once I finished reading the three-parter on Slate... I should've checked MeFi in the past few hours. It's such a good piece I am not a bit surprised it was posted before I'm able to post again.

Oh well here's all my research for it!

*the 1974 TV special: full-length video online here (good quality) and here (poor quality)

YouTube clips (in order, but all the clips are not available):
*title & credits with opening song
*Boy Meets Girl
*When We Grow Up (Michael Jackson & Roberta Flack)
*Parents Are People
*Ladies First
*It's All Right To Cry (Rosey Grier)
*William's Doll
*Atalanta
*Sisters and Brothers

*songs and sketches from the album (in track order*):
Free to Be You and Me by the New Seekers
Boy Meets Girl by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas
When We Grow Up by Diana Ross
Don't Dress Your Cat In An Apron by Billy De Wolfe
Housework by Carol Channing
Helping by Tom Smothers (written by Shel Silverstein)
Ladies First by Marlo Thomas
Dudley Pippin and the Principal by Billy De Wolfe, Bobby Morse, and Marlo Thomas
My Dog Is A Plumber by Dick Cavett
Grandma by Diana Sands
Girl Land by Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones
Dudley Pippin and his No-Friend by Bobby Morse and Marlo Thomas
Glad To Have A Friend Like You by Marlo Thomas

*the script for the play of Free to Be You and Me (PDF)
*an interview with Marlo Thomas (video)
*about the 1988 sequel Free to Be... a Family
*...and about the TV special of the sequel with two video clips here and this clip of Carly Simon here
posted by flex at 10:42 AM on October 22, 2012 [27 favorites]


This.

Phew!
posted by Sys Rq at 10:55 AM on October 22, 2012


Sorry to preempt you flex, but thanks for bringing in all those great links.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:06 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Phew!

Seconded. God those Men's Rights assholes have given people concerned with how social issues affect boys as well as girls a bad name.
posted by yellowbinder at 11:15 AM on October 22, 2012


Just curious... anybody know where that playground is in Sisters and Brothers? For a second it looked like the Ancient Playground in Central Park, which I took my sons to just a couple of weeks ago. Internet research is telling me there has been a playground in that location with similar features for a long time, but the only pictures I can find are from after it was rebuilt.

Fantastic comment, Sys Rq (flagged as such :-)
posted by rouftop at 11:17 AM on October 22, 2012


This was probably just a bit TOO radical for my parents to get for me during my formative years.

It's funny you should say that because, when I read these articles this morning, I couldn't help but think that this album helped my parents deliver a message indirectly that they probably weren't actual comfortable giving themselves. My parents didn't deliver a "boys this, girls that" message hard, but they did deliver it; however, they did also deliver media like this -- or at least didn't shield me from it. If that doesn't show how important things like this were, I don't know what else is.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:16 PM on October 22, 2012


In other words, I was not surprised that the author of the piece was also born in 1974. As I read it -- and the comments here -- I was thinking "John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album, a 45 of "Pac-Man Fever", and the cast album of "Hair", "Free to Be You and Me" -- throw in the Captain and Tennile and The Muppet Movie soundtrack and you basically had my young record collection."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:22 PM on October 22, 2012


I also fondly recall a glorious album entitled Irwin the Disco Duck.
posted by elizardbits at 12:30 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


That Irwin existed separately from the more well-known (by me, at least) "Disco Duck" and that Donald Duck sang an also-well-known-by-me song "Macho Duck" to the Village People tune on the album Mickey Mouse Disco means that there was entirely too much waterfowl-based dance music happening in my formative youth.

(just kidding -- it was the perfectly right amount)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:44 PM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


It seems all very laughable and hippie now, but this record right here has made the world for us sensible people a DEMONSTRABLY better place to be.
It honestly cannot be overstated how instrumental this whole thing was in making our lives more livable and tolerant and less bound by traditional gender norms.
And not just for women and gays and trans people either, but for men that didnt feel like getting hemmed in by boring expectations of what our lives were supposed to be.
Even if you were just a boring hetero dude that wasnt that far along the spectrum, but just wanted to be able to dig Dr. Frank N Furter and like clothes and not give a shit about football and stuff.
Massively important stuff here, and we are living in the world it helped build acting like that world has already been there.
It hasn't


(Born in 74)
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:26 PM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


She thought that the album might have actually de-emphasized gender too much, to the point that “a child might—I’m serious—wonder why we have two sexes at all.”

This. Being told that I should be good at math, when I wasn't, really sucked growing up.

And being told "you're free to be anything" also meant, in my case, "we're not going to give you even one iota of advice on what you should be," which meant I spent 20 years trying to find a career I was good at.
posted by Melismata at 1:40 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I loved this album growing up and my kids loved it, too. We only had my stepsons on alternate weekends when they were little and between soccer and visiting relatives and ferrying them back and forth to their mom's we spent a lot of time in the car. Listening to tapes became a great way to transmit stuff to them that was important but tough to squeeze in to those weekend visits. Free to Be definitely fit the bill and we all have great memories of listening together. They're both in college now and I like to think Marlo helped us to raise them into the kind and fair young men they've become.

The "Housework" bit was always one that my husband pointed out and quoted, because the boys were definitely coming back from mom's house with men's work/women's work attitudes. We are pretty cooperative in our approach and loved to talk about doing it together! in Carol Channing's voice. We still approach any project the Carol Channing way!
posted by Biblio at 1:44 PM on October 22, 2012


My kids quote that record all the time. "What do you mean there aren't enough mangoes to go around?" remains a general phrase of concern around our house.
posted by klausman at 2:03 PM on October 22, 2012


I was totally raised on this. We had the book. We had the record. We watched the TV special. I still think "A cocktail waitress!" whenever a child says/asks any variation on "do you know what I want to be when I grow up?". I cannot hear the words "Ladies first" without thinking "and she WAS" evilly.

And yet I have no recollection of "Girl Land" whatsoever. I just played it from Flex's link, and it rang no bells at all. I suppose I was old enough then (born in 69) to work the record player myself and just always skipped it. But it's weird to find out that this relic of my childhood still has things to discover. Maybe sucky things (if I get the album for my own son I may skip it again - I couldn't even make it to the end, I'll admit it), but still.
posted by Mchelly at 3:18 PM on October 22, 2012


I still have the blue plastic tape my dad used to record the LP, which he borrowed from the tiny York, Maine public library when we were living there. And the CD is one of my go-to baby gifts - being born in 1975, I can't tell you how many "Oh my gosh, I remember this!" reactions I've gotten from new parents of my age cohort. I think we need it just as much in these days of sold pink and blue toy aisles.
posted by jocelmeow at 5:47 PM on October 22, 2012


Imagine the uproar from FOX if they showed such blatant "left-wing brainwashing" to kids in 2012...

I grew up in a progressive, liberal household in rural Alabama. I can easily imagine what Fox types would have to say about this. My thought is so what, let them bitch. Thankfully that was my parents' theory as well!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:10 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Enjoy this surprising review from the Dean of American Rock Critics. Worth noting, I think, that he was not a parent at the time, and did not become one for some years afterwards...
posted by dr. zoom at 7:02 PM on October 23, 2012


"Some kind of help is the kind of help... we all can do without."
posted by Dean King at 9:39 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This was the first album that I owned, a present in 1973.

I read the Slate piece a few days ago, and was surprised to discover that the editor of Ms. was involved, though on reflection I shouldn't be.

I didn't realize how deeply FTBYAM had instilled itself in my psyche until watching the (awsome) list of links flex posted.

Re-experiencing FTBYAM has made me understand the tenets by which I have raised my daughter. And made me understand why I ascribe to the values I do.

And after watching a bunch of the linked bits, I found myself crying unashamedly at The New Seekers' title piece... funny that the first bit I watched was Rosie Grier's It's All Right To Cry.

Also, wow, I miss Carol Channing and Mel Brooks both.
posted by drfu at 12:38 AM on October 25, 2012


wow, I miss Carol Channing and Mel Brooks both.

? ....Mel Brooks is still alive.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 AM on October 25, 2012


So is Carol Channing. (Check out Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.)
posted by Madamina at 5:28 AM on October 25, 2012


Sorry, miss them in the sense that their creative output appears to have dropped precipitously. I caught an interview with Carol Channing on Fresh Air as spell ago, but other than that I haven't see/heard much out of either of them.
posted by drfu at 11:44 AM on October 25, 2012


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