As the landmark children’s album Free to Be… You and Me turns 40 this month, Soundcheck looks back at its feminist origins and at how its messages of gender neutrality hold up today. Hear from some of the album's key players, like Emmy Award-winning producer Carole Hart, composers Stephen Lawrence and Carol Hall, and singer (and former pro-football player) Rosey Grier. Plus, contribute your memories of the album by leaving Soundcheck a voicemail -- call us at (866) 939-1612.
As the adage goes, "a lady never reveals her age." But then again, terms like "lady" aren't really all that welcome in the world of Free To Be… You And Me, so I'm just going to come out and say it: I'm 26 years old. I was born 14 years after the 1972 release of the feminist children's album that we've been talking about all week on Soundcheck. As a result, I had never even heard of Free To Be until a few weeks ago.
From what I remember, my favorite children's music pretty much avoided the issue of gender entirely, singing instead about animals. There was Raffi's "Baby Beluga," a song about an adventuresome whale that's never identified as a boy or girl, and Red Grammer's non-gendered cows and ducks and coyotes that all had a "Place In The Choir." My favorite cassette tape included a song about a stereotypically male farmer who had 500 sheep, but it was in French. And since I didn’t speak French, well, I had no idea what was going on.
However, as a little girl who was raised in a non-feminist household -- and who gravitated naturally toward the girliest of the girly things in life -- I also listened to plenty of Disney music, with all of its poofy dress-wearing princesses and heteronormative values. But despite a lack of childhood exposure to message-driven music like that on the album Free To Be… You And Me, it was always very clear to me that I could grow up to be anything: a doctor, a lawyer, a musician, whatever. And I also knew that it was really fun to play California Barbie Hot Dog Stand (yes, you read that right) with the little boy from down the street practically every afternoon. He seemed to think it was fine and dandy too.
When I did finally get around to listening to Free To Be just a couple of weeks ago, I was initially struck by how much the sound reminded me of the music from Sesame Street. That makes sense, because the album was produced by Carole Hart -- who, along with her husband Bruce Hart, worked on Sesame Street -- and some of its composers, like Stephen Lawrence, also worked on the show.
I was also quickly impressed by how the album balanced silliness with forthrightness, something that was perhaps lacking in my own animal-heavy childhood music experience. (Seriously, what's up with that?) The spoken word track "Boy Meets Girl," in which two babies (played by Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks) meet in a hospital nursery and discuss whether they might be boys or girls, is hilarious. But it's also a very direct look at male/female stereotypes. I can't recall anything quite like it from my own childhood.
The conclusion of our three-part series focuses on the music heard on the 40-year-old album.
Part two of our three-part series on "Free to Be... You and Me" looks at the album's gender-neutral messaging and its limitations.
Part one of a three-part series on the 40-year-old children's album and book Free to Be... You and Me.