A few weeks ago I got an email about the 50th anniversary commemoration of the demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee where demonstrators, mostly students, got washed down the marble stairs of San Francisco’s City Hall with high-pressure fire hoses. I reminded the sender that my mother had written a song about it to the tune of “Billy Boy” so the organizers asked me to come sing it.
Billy Boy
Words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1963 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1991. In the Notes to her songbook Little Boxes and Other Handmade Songs Malvina writes: "In May, 1960, the House UnAmerican Committee came to San Francisco and subpoenaed, amongst others, a university student."

Did they wash you down the stair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,
Did they wash you down the stair, charming Billy?
Yes, they washed me down the stair
And they rearranged my hair
With a club in the City Hall rotunda.
Were there pigeons in the square, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,
Were there pigeons in the square, charming Billy?
There were pigeons in the square,
And stool pigeons on the air,
And they fouled up the City Hall rotunda.
Did they set for you a chair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,
Did they set for you a chair, charming Billy?
No, the D.A.R. was there,
And there wasn't room to spare,
So we stood in the City Hall rotunda.
Was the House Committee there, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,
Was the House Committee there, charming Billy?
The Committee it was there,
Spreading slander everywhere,
While we sang in the City Hall rotunda.
Did the people think it fair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,
Did the people think it fair, charming Billy?
No, they didn't think it fair,
And they notified the Mayor,
And he wept, and he wept, and he wept and he wept,
While they mopped up the City Hall Rotunda.
Sixty-four people were arrested that day, and 19 of the demonstrators showed up at City Hall last Thursday for a program. Here’s a report from the San Francisco State University newspaper.
What I hadn’t realized or had forgotten was that the initial protest against HUAC was a picket line outside City Hall organized by labor and progressive groups, and that the people on the inside did not necessarily know each other or belong to any group, they just wanted to get into the hearing. But groups favorable to the committee had been sent passes, and those people got in first. By the second day of the hearings, the people with passes were the only ones who got in (actually, two of our guys got in with counterfeit passes) and the people without passes were pissed. They sat down and sang and that’s when the fire hoses were turned on them.
After the program, I talked to a guy who was filming and found out he was the filmmaker who’d asked me for permission to use my mom’s “Little Boxes” in a film he was doing on the movement to save the top of San Bruno Mountain from developers. He introduced me to the reason he was filming at City Hall—David Schooley, a founding member of San Bruno Mountain Watch, and a survivor of being washed down the stairs. It’s good to see that many of the 1960 demonstrators are still activists. One of the speakers, a professor, said, “When my students ask if I remember the sixties, I tell them I started the sixties!”
The reason I wasn’t washed down the stairs myself is that I was busy that day fifty years ago planning a peace march (against nuclear weapons). When we marched into Civic Center the following day, we passed the picket line protesting both HUAC and the police brutality of the day before.
I sang “Billy Boy” again at the open mike Friday night at the Berkeley Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship. The MC, Hali Hammer, said she'd be singing the next day at Berkeley City Hall, something about conscientious objectors, and I thought, "Good, I'll be there for the farmers market and I'll see her,” and then forgot all about it till I got to Civic Center Saturday morning and there she was, sitting on a bench with Max Ventura practicing for the event.
Turns out Berkeley has a Conscientious Objectors Day and Saturday was it. Hali recruited me and we started our "ain't festival" with "I Ain't A-Marching Anymore." Then speeches and poems and raising a peace flag on the City Hall flagpole, then "Ain't Gonna Study War No More," then we went to the other flag pole down by MLK and raised the other peace flag and somebody requested my mom's "The Bankers and the Diplomats" (We Hate to See ‘Em Go) so I sang that and we ended with another "ain't" song, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
Saturday night was SingSayPlay, which brings together singers, storytellers, writers and instrumentalists in somebody’s living-room to take turns entertaining each other. It’s always lively and interesting. No website to link to, but if you’re interested, I’ll get you on the email-list. Anyway, I sang Billy Boy again, and told the story of the demonstration to folks who had been too young or too far away (Canada) to notice at the time. Then somebody announced that the Spoonoplians would make a rare appearance at the Freight at noon the next day. I hadn’t seen them for years. They are a sort of puppet show but with puppets unlike any others, and songs like “From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies (and wasn’t that a daring thing to do).” They are from Spoonoplia, the planet where kitty motors are made. Turns out they were part of the Berkeley Old Time Music Spring Fling, so besides the Spoonoplians, I got to see Ray Bierl, who used to accompany my mother in her local gigs, and Willy Claflin doing a one-hour history of the ballad from the 15th century to Steve Goodman’s “The Ballad of Penny Evans.” Willy will be at the Bay Area Storytelling Festival also. I’ll be there too, of course, and I’ll be introducing Connie at her solo show on Saturday at noon. Y’all come.
©2010 by Nancy Schimmel
I forgot to say that you can see a photo of me and the other presenters at the HUAC commemoration on those same marble stairs at
Thursday, May 20, 2010 - 08:42 AM
Back when she was Connie Regan and traveling with her cousin as The Folktellers, Connie Regan-Blake inspired me to quit my day job and hit the road as a storyteller. She’ll be telling at the Bay Area Storytelling Festival in El Sobrante this weekend.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010