Free to Be You and Me Turns 50 and Still Resonates

Free to Be You and Me Turns 50 and Still Resonates

There are not a lot of songs that I haven’t heard for 40-plus years that I can hear and start singing word for word. This is one of them:

There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live

In a land where the river runs free
In a land through the green country
In a land to a shining sea
And you and me are free to be you and me

My fellow Gen Xers know this as the opening verse and chorus for the title track from Free to Be You and Me, the album that taught a generation that it’s all right for boys to cry and that women (even princesses) can have happy and fulfilling lives as something other than wives and mothers.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the release of the album that was the brainchild of actress and activist Marlo Thomas, who upon reading a bedtime story to her 5-year-old niece looked at the “old-fashioned” story and decided, as she recently told NPR, “that I wanted to create a project for children that said that they were free to be anything they wanted to be.”

Thomas gathered together luminaries of song and screen, and the result was the album and subsequent television special, which included not just songs like the title track, which paints the picture of a kind of children’s utopia, and “It’s All Right to Cry,” performed by legendary football tough guy Rosie Greer, but also cultural critiques like “Housework” performed by Carol Channing, which deconstructs the happy housewife imagery of the day’s television commercials:

So, the very next time you happen to be
Just sitting there quietly watching TV,
And you see some nice lady who smiles
As she scours or scrubs or rubs or washes or wipes or mops or dusts or cleans,
Remember, nobody smiles doing housework but those ladies you see on TV.
Your mommy hates housework,
Your daddy hates housework,
I hate housework too.
And when you grow up, so will you.
Because even if the soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach
That you use is the very best one,
Housework is just no fun.

Looking through the list of songs, I recall favorites like “Ladies First,” a Shel Silverstein poem about a selfish little girl who insists on always going first because she’s a girl until her insistence ends up getting her eaten by a pack of ravenous tigers.

Then there’s the story of Princess Atalanta who joins the race of potential suitors for her hand to show that no man could match her. The race ends in a tie between Atalanta and “young John,” who refuses the king’s offer of his daughter’s hand, insisting that it must be Atalanta’s choice.

The story ends with Atalanta and young John each deciding to travel the land before deciding if they would someday marry.

My wife’s name is Kathy, not Atalanta, but we did something similar after meeting in college. Recognizing that we needed time to have some adventures — and finish our graduate studies — we didn’t get married until nine years after we met. Twenty-two years later, things are still going pretty darn well.

It’s sort of shocking how many of the attitudes I hold today are reflected in the messages of Free to Be You and Me.

I imagine there are some people who would look at the messages of the songs in Free to Be You and Me, map them on to how I’ve turned out, and think that I was brainwashed at an impressionable age into becoming a progressive on issues of gender equality, sexual orientation, and race.

There’s material in Free to You and Me that would be prohibited from being played in schools by Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

But as we think about how children are influenced by family, school, and culture, I think it’s important to remember that if these attitudes and beliefs did not intersect with a set of core, underlying values already held by listeners, they would not have had such an impact.

Rather than being brainwashed by Free to Be You and Me, a generation had their innate sense of what is just and fair affirmed, allowing it to grow naturally. If the message hadn’t resonated, it would not have been so enduring.