Ellen interviewed me several times for the book, and I remembered things in 1983 and 1984 I probably would not remember now. This week I listened to myself talking about my mother’s method of composing a song. I had observed it early on, when I lived at home (until 1952) and later on trips with her. Ellen had also travelled with Malvina and had her own observations which jibed with mine.

People asked my mother, as they ask me, which comes first, the words or the tune? With both of us, the words come first, with a few exceptions.

Sometimes Malvina wrote a song quickly because the song came all of a piece, words  and then almost immediately the music. She wrote “Magic Penny” during the time I was at a junior high school dance. Sometimes she would compose a song quickly when she was under time pressure, as  when people wanted a song for a particular campaign (“The Judge Said,” for instance, was written for a re-call campaign) or when she wanted a song in time for a scheduled recording date (she wrote “Young Moon” quickly to use it as a B-side to “The Judge Said,” a single produced by Steve Goodman). 

        Malvina sings “Young Moon” ©1976, released only on a single

The Judge Said

In 1977 a decision by Judge Simonson in Madison, Wisconsin relieved some young men of responsibility for a sex crime they committed, saying that the young woman they raped was dressed provocatively. She was wearing jeans and a turtleneck. The story was quickly picked up by the national news. Malvina's song contributed to a recall campaign that eventually removed Simonson from the bench.

The judge said "Screw 'em!
Boys, you're only human.
They brought it on themselves
By being born a woman.
Like a mountain's there to climb
And food's there to be eaten,
Woman's there to rape,
To be shoved around and beaten."

The judge took his position, 
The judge he wouldn't budge,
So we've got out this petition,
And we're going to screw the judge.

Now if you beat a horse or dog
Or violate a bank,
Simonson will haul you in
And throw you in the clink.
But violate a woman,
Your equal and your peer,
The judge will slap you on the wrist
And lay the blame on her.

To draw a true conclusion
From what Simonson has said,
Woman has to live in fear
And cover up her head.
She has to dress in purdah
And lock herself in cages,
And this kinky judge in Madison
Is from the Middle Ages.

(Last chorus)
The judge took his position,
The judge he wouldn't budge,
So we've got out this petition,
And we're going to dump the judge.

Words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1977 Schroder Music Company, renewed 2005. 

Other songs came much more slowly. She might quickly scribble down some lines in a notebook and finish the song much later. Or she would think she had finished a song, but in using it realize that it needed more--a chorus or introduction. This was the case with “Rosie Jane,” to which she added the introduction after trying the verses and chorus out on friends. 

                                  Malvina sings Rosie Jane

Rosie Jane

This song is addressed to my sisters.
Any man who is present may listen, 
Any priest, any public official, any physician.
But it gives him no license to touch us, 
We make the decision. 
Me and Lydia, Josie and Rosie and Eve,
We handle this matter ourselves, 
You'd better believe, or you better leave.

Rosie Jane, are you pregnant again?
Rosie Jane, you can hardly take care
Of the four you had before. 
What in heaven's name were you thinking of!
Rosie Jane, was it love?

I had an extra shot on top of what I'd got, 
In a word I was drunk, so was Bill.
At least I think it was Bill,
And I'd forgot to take my pill.
I guess it was God's will.

When that baby is a child,
It will suffer from neglect,
Be picked upon and pecked, 
And run over and wrecked,
And its head will be crowned with the thorn.
But while it's inside her
It must remain intact, 
And it cannot be murdered till it's born.

Words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1973 Schroder Music Company, renewed 2001.

Sometimes she would find that a song needed subtraction rather than additions. The last verse would drive home the point too obviously, and she would drop it. She would rather leave the audience to think through the conclusion. On the other side of the same interview tape, my cousin Mike remembered her singing folk songs to him when he was a kid--”The Blue Tail Fly,” “The Foggy Dew”--which Mike was hearing for the first time. His description of her singing was that she sang them intelligently. Ellen asked him to describe that. “She sang as if she knew what the words meant,” she sang “like good conversation.” I think part of her appeal was that she sang intelligently and she wrote in a way that respected the intelligence of her audience. Later, when she had developed more as a performer, her aim still was not to dazzle. She kept her concerts intelligent conversations between herself and the audience.

I think when she did sit down to work out the tune, she stayed with it until she had something she could use, although the tune might change a bit as she performed the song. This is why sometimes the tune in the songbook is different from the worn-to-use tune on a recording.

What I realized as I listened to myself describe my mother’s working method is that I write songs pretty much the same way. Words first, but not necessarily all at once. Then the tune, immediately or months or years later, but in one or two sittings once I started on it. Not everybody does it this way. Two songwriters I collaborate with, Judy Fjell and Fran Avni, get the tune in bits and snippets over days or weeks. Some write the tune first and then write lyrics. Malvina only did that when she started with a traditional tune, as when Lou Gottleib found a song he wanted updated lyrics to. She may have done this also with “The Judge Said.” Even then, she might have written a few lines and realized they could be sung to a slightly adapted “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and then written the rest to fit.

©2008 by Nancy Schimmelhttp://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=2675
Ellen Stekert, photo probably taken in the seventies, before she started interviewing people for the Malvina biography in the early eighties.
Sunday, July 27, 2008