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Free to Be… You and Me at 40

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2012

Writing for Slate, Dan Kois looks back on the landmark album for kids, Free to Be… You and Me, which was released 40 years ago. Part one details how the album came to be.

[Marlo] Thomas’ fruitless Martindale’s shopping trip led her to the idea that her next project ought to be a collection of stories for children that avoided sexual stereotypes and promoted gender equality. She could solicit the stories and record herself reading them. It would be just like the records she and her sister had listened to in their rooms as little girls, but liberated, smarter, modern. She just had to find the stories.

Part two covers how the album was created:

The sketches were recorded at the grand MediaSound studio on West 57th Street over the course of a few days. Billy De Wolfe, Thomas’s co-star on That Girl, lent his distinctive voice to several roles on the record, including the dandyish principal who plays the flute for Dudley Pippin. (Dudley Pippin himself was voiced by “Bobby Morse,” better known now as cranky senior partner Bertram Cooper on Mad Men.) Some of the sessions were quite impromptu: Dick Cavett remembers getting a call from Thomas in the morning-“I had a show to tape that day, and I thought, well, God, I can’t really do it, but I like her, and she does good stuff, and also I was very familiar with her face because on my daytime show the promo for That Girl ran at least 10 times during each show”-and walking the few blocks from his office to MediaSound to record that afternoon.

Mel Brooks’ session was more eventful. Thomas had written to him that the album “would benefit the Ms. Foundation,” and when he came in the morning of his recording, he told her that he thought the material Reiner and Stone had written was funny but that he didn’t know what it had to do with multiple sclerosis. Once set straight about the MS in question, Brooks joined Thomas in the recording booth, where they would both play babies for the album’s first sketch, “Boy Meets Girl.”

“When I directed,” Alda recalls, “I would be meticulous and relentless. I would do a lot of takes. But Mel is not a guy who’s used to doing a lot of takes. He’s not used to taking direction from anybody-you know, he gives direction.” Alda didn’t love the first few takes of “Boy Meets Girl”; in the end it took, Alda remembers, 10 or 15 tries, with Brooks improvising madly all along the way. Rodgers was there that day to record “Ladies First,” and she still remembers standing in the control room laughing harder with each take. “Mel was generous,” Alda allows, “and he let me egg him on.”

And part three addresses the impact the album has had:

Criticism came from the other direction, too. Thomas held on to a review from the feminist newspaper Off Our Backs, which chided Free To Be for its focus on the nuclear family and hetero relationships. “The message is so upbeat and catchy and some of the messages so appealing,” Fran Pollner wrote, “that the adult feminist listener may miss the first time around the basic idea of this one-hour album: that little boys and little girls should get together at a young age to ensure a solid and satisfying future marriage and family life.”

“I think it was very hard in the 1970s to ever make any comment that was viewed as radical enough,” laughs Laura Lovett, co-editor with Rotskoff of When We Were Free To Be. “People were holding one another to really hard and clear goals.”

But of course part of the point of Free To Be was making radical feminist beliefs palatable to a broad audience that might otherwise reject them. “It was second-wave feminism that went mainstream,” Rotskoff says. “It was packed with telegenic celebrities. It was performed by famous people. And the messages were both revolutionary and accessible enough for a mainstream audience.”

We listen to a lot of Free to Be on long car trips. No idea whether any of it is getting through, but it’s nice to have something to reference when we’re talking about, for example, the maddening no-boys-allowed princess parties thrown by Ollie’s school classmates. [hair tearing-out noise]