Little Boxes

Album: Malvina Reynolds... Sings The Truth (1967)
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Songfacts®:

  • Malvina Reynolds, who died in 1978, was a social activist and writer of protest songs. She wrote "Little Boxes" as a political statement about the uniformity, the sameness, which she believed was being fostered by what are now known as "cookie-cutter" or "tract" houses found along suburban streets with identical floor plans.

    While the US housing industry's typical year consists of 1 to 1.25 million homes built, for a 5-year period during World War II the number of houses built was nearly zero. Enter: Levittown. The advent of the "Mass Housing" industry was brought about by William J. Levitt. Originally tried on a smaller scale in the 1920s, it was after the War that Levitt began building in earnest. Seeking to alleviate the housing shortage brought about by the War, he took Henry Ford's assembly-line style of building cars and applied it to building houses.

    Each house was 750 square feet, consisted of two bedrooms, no garage, no basement, an unfinished second floor, and sat on one-seventh-acre lots that measured 60 feet in width. He named all his suburban housing developments "Levittown."

    Levitt and Sons found ways to cut costs on the building materials, using sheetrock instead of plaster, and asbestos tiles, which would eventually crumble. They used Colorbestos sheets instead of shingles because they were cheap and easy to come by. It was these practices that may have inspired the use of the phrase "ticky-tacky" in this song.

    By 1948 William Levitt was boasting that, at peak capacity, his firm could complete one house every 15 minutes. Indeed, by the time of his death in 1994, there were Levittowns all across the United States and in some foreign countries, including France and Nigeria. Believing he was on a noble crusade to help bring about the American Dream, Levitt once said, "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do." Another quote attributed to Levitt: "Any fool can build homes - what counts is how many you can sell for how little." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Akamu - Huntington Beach, CA
  • While the Levittowns were the first of the ticky-tacky houses, Malvina was actually driving through Daly City, California, when she got the idea for "Little Boxes." She was on her way to sing at a meeting of the Friends Committee on Legislation.
  • The definition of "Ticky-tacky": sleazy or shoddy material used especially in the construction of look-alike tract houses.
  • The folk singer Pete Seeger was the first to record "Little Boxes," including a live version on his album We Shall Overcome - Recorded Live at His Historic Carnegie Hall Concert, and a studio version on 2 Broadside, both in 1963. The song's writer, Malvina Reynolds, didn't release her version until 1967 when she included it on her album Sings The Truth.
  • In 1964 a cover version of this by The Womenfolk peaked at #83 on the American chart. Lasting a mere one minute, two seconds, it was the shortest US top 100 chart entry for 52 years until Piko-Taro's 45-second "PPAP (pen-pineapple-apple-pen)" entered in 2016.
  • "Little Boxes" is the inspired opening theme to the TV series Weeds, which ran on Showtime from 2005-2012. Set in a gated suburban community filled with look-alike houses, the song plays in the intro as we see identical-looking people all doing the same thing (jogging, getting coffee). Of course, behind the veneer is plenty of pathos and dysfunction. The main character, played by Mary-Louise Parker, becomes a drug dealer who at times is the only voice of reason in her community of conformity.

    In the first season, the Malvina Reynolds version was used, but for the next two seasons, different artists covered the song for each episode, re-working the song in many unexpected genres. Here's the breakdown:

    Season 2:

    Elvis Costello (this version appears on Volume 2 of the show's soundtrack)
    Death Cab for Cutie
    Engelbert Humperdinck
    Kate & Anna McGarrigle (with French lyrics)
    Maestro Charles Barnett
    Aidan Hawken
    Ozomatli
    The Submarines
    Tim DeLaughter of Polyphonic Spree
    Regina Spektor
    Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice

    Season 3:

    Randy Newman (used on Volume 3 of the soundtrack)
    Angelique Kidjo
    Kinky
    Donovan
    Billy Bob Thornton
    The Shins
    The Individuals
    Man Man
    Joan Baez
    The Decemberists
    Michael Franti
    Persephone's Bees
    Laurie Berkner
    Linkin Park

    Trying to identify the artist each week was an interesting exercise.

    In season 4, the setting changed and theme song went away. It returned in season 8 (the final season) with another slate of guest artists:

    Ben Folds
    Steve Martin and Kevin Nealon
    Mariachi El Bronx
    The Mountain Goats
    Bomb the Music Industry
    The Womenfolk
    The Thermals
    Dierks Bentley
    Hunter Parrish
    Aimee Mann

Comments: 5

  • Reynard D. Fox from Upstate NyI'm going to say that Victor Jara copied it for the better!
  • Klaus from ChileVíctor Jara copied this one a decade later for good or worst.
  • Dwight from North CarolinaI must be old. I remember when this song was on the radio!
  • Patricio from Santiago, ChileThere is a version in Spanish written by the Chilean songwriter Victor Jara. It is called "Las Casitas del Barrio Alto" (Little houses uptown). It appears in the 1971 LP "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz"
  • J from Toronto, CanadaMalvina Reynolds also composed the Seekers hit, Morningtown Ride.
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