Malvina Reynolds: Song Lyrics and Poems  

Words and Music

    Words make us people. To translate this into longer words, if it weren't for communication, we would be animals.

    I'm not saying that it is bad to be animals. But the fact is that we are human beings, and if we do not act that way, we fall to pieces.

    We are falling to pieces. Because our words have become corrupted, and serve us no longer.

    Our best words--sincere, love, hope, happy--have been so misused, that they are only good enough for a joke. Or an emetic. They are used to sell hair spray, real estate, political platforms, wars; they are worn out, and can't be used to talk with any more.

    Therefore we now have hippy talk. We have modern poetry, which not many people read because it is baffling. It sounds like talk, but it doesn't say.

    There is the new generation, which is making its own language. Partly out of poetry, partly out of its own slanguage.

    This generation is growing up in a world which is about to explode because hardly anyone has any sense any more. We have a money morality.

    Money isn't a bad thing. I wish I had more, I could use it for a number of good things. Good? There's another misused, weary, empty word. I mean I'd make a bigger donation to the Women For Peace, and SNCC; I'd go to London and see the world.

    But money corrupts government and it has made nothing out of the community in which men must live to be men (there's a word; it means human beings, but that's too unmusical). For profit's sake, the cities have become too big, the air is foul with gaseous garbage. The beautiful rivers are no more so, they are sewers.

    Worst of all, people, for whom the whole thing is, are being rejected by the carload because they cannot take part in the money business. They have been automated out of meaning. Or, if they live in far away lands, their riches and their work and their freedom is drained away for the money business in some powerful other country that doesn't even speak their language.

    I have worked and lived with language all my life. I try to make singing poetry that means. I try to rescue talk from the hair spray. For most of my life there were not many of us doing this particular thing. Now there are hundreds. And I feel as though I can lay my burden down.

    But songwriting is a habit and way of life now for me. It isn't easy, but I would rather do it than anything. To sing my songs and have an audience of two or two hundred light up to them, and sing the refrain, this is the joy of my life. To hear others sing them is great. And also I make my living this way.

    The songwriting business is fantastic, the whole popular music business is fantastic. It is one of the few frontiers left in American business. Three or four young people who sing and play (1,400,000 guitars were sold in the U. S. in 1965), who make a song that hits the nerve of their generation, can make a killing. Technology has made it possible to put out a record with very little capital. And such tremendous returns can be made on small outlay, that recording companies are quick to pick up a record that gets response even in one location. Technology is such that a record that makes it in one area, can move with tremendous speed all over the country.

    So the gangsters are in there. The gangsters with contracts. The gangsters with publishing companies, with juke boxes, with recording companies. The kids with genius are signed up on what are called "standard" contracts.

    There's a word. To be standard, a contract should be like all others. There are a million "standard" contracts, with clauses involving everything from a fair deal to slavery. You can buy printed music contracts for all phases of the business, by the ton, with all kinds of provisions--or you can print your own.

    When the kids with the genius see "standard" on a contract, offered to them in a fine office with a well-ordered business representative to dazzle their eyes with the pop-art picture of success, they sign. They walk out on cloud nine. Till they find out where it's at. Even so, this is such a profitable business that they can be making money they never dreamed of, and the companies that love them while they are on the charts can make ten times as much and it doesn't seem to matter. When they are off the charts, who cares? Who knows? They are part of the waste of a system that doesn't know how to dispose of its waste and corrupts its atmosphere and rivers with it. And Watts burns.

    Morality. There's a word. Dare I pick it up, limp, empty, faded? I need it. Morality is what words are. Words are values. Words in their native state are rich with values. They are embroidered with connotations until the connotations are the word, and the denotations are nothing.

    That's why logic is a phony. With logic you can make anything come out right. But it's wrong. Because you have stripped the words of their real meaning, their connotation, and end up with a lie.

    The new generation, singing on the brink of the mushroom, rejects logic. Their songs, their lyrics, are poetic, connotative; the words are themselves a music. Logic has brought them to the edge of hell; the crew cut, business suit, the clean man and beauty-shop made girl with the fine clear voices and the neat vocabulary of dead words, have brought us to where we are, so to hell with them. The sign of the one we can trust is the unkempt hair and the hip talk and the woolly leather jacket and the harsh voice. Hooray for the ugly man--it is his day. He is no longer the villain of the piece, but the hero.

    This may be a passing thing; there will be a new fashion, perhaps, before this book is off the press. But it will not be a fashion made on the clothing industry drawing boards.

    The rejected people are making their own community. Some places it is gangs. But the brightest of the young people will not settle for violence and crime. They want the world made over to fit them, for they are the people, without whom the world is not.

    They are making their own community, for the old community has fallen to pieces. They make it on the protest lines and the campuses. It is a world with its own art and its own songs, and they are great songs. They are a Renaissance.

    My songs are only a small part of these, and already dated somewhat. But there is some honesty in them. There is protest against what has happened to the community of man. And there is a love of the world and the people of the world, so that one or two of the songs may stand into the new time. Or may at least help some in guaranteeing that new time.

Malvina Reynolds
March, 1967

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