LABOUR SONG PIONEER: MALVINA REYNOLDS

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 By Tara Bursey

Last year, the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre held a sing-a-long and concert in our backyard and main gallery featuring the Syracuse punk-folk band, The Malvinas. I have this awesome band to thank for introducing me to the glorious music of their namesake, Malvina Reynolds.

Who is Malvina?

Malvina Reynolds was born Malvina Milder in the year 1900 in San Francisco. She began singing and writing songs later in life, after acquiring a degree in music theory and meeting folk musicians (among them Pete Seeger and Earl Robinson) when she was in her late 40s. She went on to write several popular songs, including “Little Boxes,” recorded by Pete Seeger and others, “What Have They Done to the Rain,” recorded by The Searchers and Joan Baez (about nuclear fallout), “It Isn’t Nice” (a civil rights anthem), and many others. Malvina the magnificent also appeared a number of times on Sesame Street (as a character named Kate) and was a songwriter for the series in the 1970s.

Malvina Reynolds wrote profound and heartbreaking songs about the lives of workers, and was a champion of the working classes. Many of her songs also took a strong feminist stance, spoke bravely against capitalism, and immortalized common people. Her Carolina Cotton Mill Song is a powerful call for social and environmental justice:

Oh the mystical people, they think they are wise,
With the smooth on their faces and stars in their eyes,
But the truths of this system are spoken and sung
By the workers who bear the brown lung.

Oh it’s Burlington and Cannon
And the names we wives know well,
Who advertise the sheets and towels
And give us the old soft sell,
And they’d rather buy the government men
With promotions here and there,
Than pay out company profits
For to clean the cotton mill air.

(Words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1976 Schroder Music Company, renewed 2004)

 In The Money Crop, Malvina wages some heavy truths about labour, and the human cost of the military-industrial complex. Her lyrics are intersectional, moving, and as relevant today as they were when she wrote them.

Well, money has its own way,
And money has to grow.
It grows on human blood and bone,
As any child would know.
It’s iron stuff and paper stuff
With no life of its own,
And so it takes its growing sap
From human blood and bone.

And many a child goes hungering
Because the wage is low,
And men die on the battlefield
To make the money grow.
And those that take the money crop
Are avid without end,
They plant it in the tenements
To make it grow again.

(Words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1966 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1994)

Though Malvina passed away in 1976, her music lives on though her wonderful recorded output. Find more of her songs and performances on Youtube, or on an old LP if you feel up to hunting one down. Viva Malvina!

 

Hear some of Malvina’s songs performed live at International Women’s Day Concert and Labour Song Singalong at the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre, presented in partnership with SACHA (Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton and Area) on Saturday, March 5th from 3-5pm.

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