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When We Were 'Free To Be'

Part one of a three-part series on the 40-year-old children's album "Free to Be... You and Me."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The opening scene on a Central Park carousel from the 1974 children's special "Free to Be... You and Me." (YouTube)

Forty years ago, actress Marlo Thomas and Ms. Magazine put out a children's album that taught little boys that it's all right to cry, and little girls that "ladies first" doesn’t always work out so well. Free to Be... You And Me used stories and songs to teach young people about tolerance, equality, and, perhaps most importantly, gender neutrality.

In this first part of a three part series on the 1972 record and book, we speak with the Emmy Award-winning TV producer Carole Hart, who co-produced the record and the 1974 Afterschool Special by the same name. Hart shares the story behind the album -- and the controversy it engendered.

Plus, we hear from cultural historian Lori Rotskoff, who co-edited a new essay collection called “When We Were Free To Be: Looking Back at a Children's Classic and the Difference It Made." 

Did you or your kids listen to Free To Be... You and Me? What did you think of it then? What do you think of it now? Tell us on Twitter at @Soundcheck, leave us a voicemail at 866-939-1612 or post a comment on


Carole Hart and Lori Rotskoff

Comments [14]

ellen Maxon from VT

I loved this when I bought for my kids 36 yrs ago - my 31 yrs old daughter still loves it - she performed the "mighty tasty too!" segment for an assignment in grade school - I still give this to every person I know who is having their first child!

Dec. 31 2012 04:58 PM
Andrea Singer from Brooklyn, New York

Free To Be You and Me was shown at my elementary school every single year. I recall that it made a lot of the children uncomfortable. In fact, it made me uncomfortable to watch in a group setting, particularly because of the baby scene which discussed anatomy - penises, vaginae. However, despite that, the movie had an overwhelmingly positive impact on me. I do not recall any particular gender revelations, but the message I took away was far simpler: always be kind and supportive of those around you, even when you cannot understand them. It was VERY important to me to champion that message. Do not tease. Do not discriminate.

Nov. 14 2012 09:28 PM
Erin from Montclair, NJ

"Free to Be" was my first album, and really shaped my views about gender. I'm amazed how far society has progressed since this "controversial" album was recorded, and how much work is still left to do.

Nov. 14 2012 02:00 PM

Our listener Tom emailed us this reminder that a "Free To Be" song was used in the end credits of a recent film: "I snoozed through the movie 'Young Adult' last winter, but then Diana Ross' recording of 'When We Grow Up' started playing over the closing credits and I jolted awake and went through a mini freak-out when I realized what I was hearing. My mom got the album for me when it came out and I played it a thousand times and hung on every lyric, and then never heard any of those songs again. It was astonishing what an effect, what an immense emotional impact, hearing that song again had on me."

Nov. 14 2012 08:12 AM
Tamara from Bronx, NY

I laughed and sang along when I heard the program. Next I called my mother and pulled out my book to show to my daughter. It brought back some fond memories of singing the songs at the top of my lungs as a kid. Funny, I don't know anyone else who has the book but I saved mine. Can't believe I was six when it came out. I didn't get the grown up stuff I heard them discuss on the program so as an adult it was interesting to hear the movement behind the production. As a kid I just knew it was funny and different so I liked it.

Nov. 14 2012 02:17 AM
James from Hamilton Heights, NY, NY

Wow. What a joy it was listening tonight and reliving those wonderful moments when I was a boy. I can't begin to tell you how much of an impact "Free To Be" had on me. I didn't have many friends as a child and always felt I was a bit different than others. When I would listen to the album and watched the special, I felt to validated. I felt like I belonged and I no longer felt odd. I went on about my life, quirks and all, but far more comfortable in my skin. This album came out for me right at that tender age where one is striving to fit in and while developing a sense of 'self.' I was 10 and thank you John Schaefer for putting that smile on my face again and allowing to feel that sense of empowerment one more time. My middle school students won't know who I am when I stroll into class tomorrow!

Nov. 13 2012 10:33 PM
Kate A

It's amazing, i remember all the lyrics! And the album cover! I stared at it for hours, along with my Sesame Street Original Cast record and Raffi collection.

Thank you so much for airing this segment, the music of that time for children was so magical and i think it is because, as Carole Hart said, it was not talking down to us kids.

I can't wait to play it for my children in the future.

Nov. 13 2012 10:07 PM
CB from Brooklyn

Wow. It's all I can say. Wow for bringing me back with a direct line to my childhood. Wow for honoring this on your show. All I can say is Free To Be You and Me was an integral part of my childhood- sitting on the shelf in my mother's living room- right along side all the other records and books that we frequented. It was there all the time ready to be put on the record player and was it just a given that it was a part of our literary and listening spectrum. It's just an ingrained part of my childhood memories. And, I'm in disbelief that I don't have the album now, I didn't keep it (although I'm sure my mother still has it in her collection!) and I want to run over to the computer after I write this and buy a CD for my 5 year old son. I must introduce him to the album. As the first segment of your show said-- it was a very important album. I think the sadness I felt listening to the segment of your show is because it was part of my childhood that I no longer take with me. It is there in my memory- but can I say as much as the world has changed and as progressive as laws and thinking has become today, I just don't see ANYTHING that has the same deep impact in media today. Should we look at a Katy Perry album or Lady Gaga and say these are one of the most influential singers for youth today? No. I hope not. Shall we look at Barney and say oh, he's such an important icon for children. No. I hope not. There is nothing else today in 2012 that will impact my son as this album influenced me. That says something about our present media saturated existence in 2012. With all the videos, music, everything online or on ipads- games, music, videos etc... there is no ONE connecting song or album. There is a lack of connection today- that is what I am missing today and is a stark contrast to what Free to Be You and Me gave my generation. I'm saddened.

Nov. 13 2012 09:41 PM
Laura from Brooklyn

I was six when this album came out and my mother, a subscriber to Ms., got it for me. I still have the original album. I remember listening to it all the time and loving it, feeling happy. Now it really moves me, bringing tears to my eyes when I listen, especially the song "free to be you and me." Well, I played in an all boys baseball league, with my brother, and eventually quit when I became afraid of the ball. I went on to be a therapist, but my brother became a chef. We both felt free to be what we wanted.

Nov. 13 2012 09:37 PM
Annie from Brooklyn

I grew up in a household without television but we had records galore. I never saw the TV special, but man did I listen to that record! Free To Be You and Me was nearly destroyed after so many repeated listenings. I still remember the shade of pink of the album cover, and probably know every word still.
While I'm certain that the sentiments and themes of the album were fully absorbed by myself and my brother and I'm very thankful for that legacy, the more important long-term consequence for me was that it gave me a love for sound. While there was plenty of music, what I remember more were the stories. They were like radio plays that allowed me to explore my imagination and I've been in love with radio ever since. And I think I'm a more creative, open-minded person because of it. And a regular public radio listener to boot! Thanks for reminding me of this fantastic piece of my upbringing.

Nov. 13 2012 09:36 PM
Dina Berdy from Royal Oak, MI

This album is seminal when consider my own emotional development and how I think of myself and my relationships. From 1975-1979 I sat in my playroom listening by myself for hours as I colored. I turned 40 this year, and I work as a psychotherapist. For over a year I have been toying with the idea of creating a children's therapeutic group using "Free to Be..." as a focal point to help children learn about identity development, flexible gender roles, social criticism, and inter-generational relationships. I have a 6 year old son, and I consider this album to be a "required listening." I cannot separate "Atalanta" from my personal philosophy of feminism. I cannot think about my own grandmother without thinking of "Delilah Bush." I can't watch television without hearing Carol Channing doing "Housework." These have become iconic. Now in my professional life and as a participant in culture, I wonder, often aloud, what happened to these messages, particularly the feminist ones. I hear young women struggle with their identity as they suffer from debilitating perceptions of their bodies, and they seem so lost,they are lost- without a grounding message around which they can center their identity and development. There is nothing like FTB, currently, that serves as an antidote to the damaging images that innundate all of us. I was, in many ways, blessed with this special innoculation. Today my mother is gone. I am so grateful that I can pass on this piece of culture to my child. If she were alive, I am pretty sure she would have bought him his first doll.

Nov. 13 2012 08:56 PM
Liz from Manhattan

I loved "Free to Be You and Me" and knew all of the words to the songs and the stories. I would listen to the album over and over, driving my family crazy. I was usually a well-behaved kid, but I got in trouble for something that I don't remember, and my parents came up with a Draconian punishment--they took away the album for a week. (I had the book, too, but it just wasn't the same.)

Nov. 13 2012 08:12 PM
Marian Hartstein

When you mentioned that you'd be doing 3 shows on "Free to Be You and Me," you struck a (delighted) nerve. In fact, that cassette is on permanent display on my dresser; I always think I'm going to use it with my elementary school students, though I never have. I love many of the song, but m;y favorite is the title song. Here is a remembrance that I'm sure you can't use but I like nonetheless. When my now 27-year-old daughter was in sixth grade, she was taking piano lessons. She wasn't talented and she never practiced, but one song she had mastered was "Free to Be You and Me." Not only did we have the cassette, she owned a copy of the book, which had the music for that song in the back. She played it often, but there were two memorable occasions: the first when our newly arrived French foreign exchange student su;;ddenly warmed up when Ali played and we all sang the song, and the second time when Ali played it for her recital. There is something to positive about that song that I have always loved. It makes me feel good. And I should mention that my 27-year-old daughter has turned out to be extremely independent and self-reliant, so maybe those words had meaning for her.

Nov. 13 2012 07:07 PM
Candace Dobro from Boonton Township, NJ

Great topic! I taught dramatics at a day camp in the suburbs of Philly in the late 70's and spent a good portion of my job sharing "Free To Be" with campers aged five-through-twelve.

At the time, I took for granted the concepts of male/female equality and the importance of expressing feelings and emotions — since they were the norms of the day. But now that I look back on it, the clarity with which those concepts were delivered seems incredibly direct and smart. Along with many other cultural pushes and tugs, I think "Free To Be" infiltrated our collective consciousness in far-reaching ways!

Today the tunes and production seem outdated, but revisiting the content, I find it still resonates. Thanks for honoring the 40th Anniversary of an important piece of culture that has meant a great deal to this listener.

Nov. 13 2012 06:04 PM

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