58 years ago on Mother’s Day all the to-be members of The Womenfolk gathered at Doug Weston’s Troubadour on Sunset Blvd for an audition for the only all women folk group to be recording for RCA. By the next week we were in rehearsal and by early fall recorded our hit record Malvina Reynolds “Little Boxes”. It is wonderful that after all these years we are still in touch with fans old and new!
Barbara just posted a whole great article in translation written by a Womenfolk friend in Germany:
Pop Anthology (112):
All the little family boxes
• BY Cornelius Dieckmann
• -Updated on 03/11/2021-21:0
Image: The Womenfolk / Leni Ashmore Sorensen
At 62 seconds in length, The Womenfolk’s “Little Boxes” was the shortest song on the Billboard Hot 100 for half a century. A chance encounter with singer Barbara Cooper in New York.
It was late afternoon and our legs were getting heavy. The whole day we had explored the architectural excess of the city, curious and overwhelmed like everyone who comes to New York for the first time. Just a few clichés: bagel breakfast in Central Park, history-conscious passing through Carnegie Hall, appraisal of Bauhaus furniture and van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in the Museum of Modern Art. The Trump Tower, totalitarian monstrosity made of glass and gold, which we found surrounded by grinning people in red caps, gave us the rest. We wanted pluralism and wandered on to the United Nations Headquarters, a giant cereal box that turned out not to be visitable that day in April 2019.
Because there was still some time before we had an appointment with a friend in Chinatown, we stopped in Tompkins Square Park, a green square in the middle of city blocks. It was t-shirt weather and a Friday, which drove people outside. A jazz band was playing.
After a few minutes, an older woman with short hair and a serious face took a seat next to me on the park bench. She spoke to me, obviously chatting, and we made small talk. I asked what part of Manhattan we were in. In the East Village, the person sitting next to me explained to me, which didn’t mean much to me, except that it sounded perfectly like New York, so I liked it, especially since I was talking to a real New Yorker now.
Well, the woman explained, she actually comes from California, but has lived in New York since 1979. The first time she was here in 1965 to appear with her band on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. Now I was fascinated. That was the television show in which, at around the same time, the Beatles launched the British Invasion in front of an audience of millions. Was the person I spoke to a famous musician?
Criticism of the American middle class was also self-criticism
It turned out that she was indeed a musician, but fame was a boast. During the folk revival she sang in the band The Womenfolk. They were on tour a lot at the time, and they also played in clubs in Greenwich Village. That seemed fabulous to me, just the day before I was walking through the former Folkie district in a historical mood, but now I couldn’t manage more than an honest “Wow”, I didn’t know the band, and anyway we had to go to our date right away set off in Chinatown. I asked my new acquaintance her name – Barbara, she said, and we shook hands.
In the evening I googled and learned that The Womenfolk was an active quintet from 1963 to 1966, all of which were female members both playing guitar and singing. Barbara “Babs” Cooper, born in 1941, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and her four colleagues first performed as solo artists on the west coast. In 1963 they were formed into a band by two producers from Los Angeles, after which they recorded three studio and two live albums for the RCA Victor label. In addition to cover versions of folk songs such as “A Hundred Miles” or “The Last Thing On My Mind” (with Glen Campbell on lead guitar), they also sang their own compositions. But they landed their only hit with the song “Little Boxes” by their songwriter friend Malvina Reynolds.
At 62 seconds in length, the Womenfolk version was the shortest song ever to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 for more than fifty years. In April 1964 it was ranked 83 of the most important singles charts in the country.
One, two, three, let’s all sing! The pleasant prelude unmistakably breathes the somewhat honest spirit of the Hootenanny. Ironic? Black humor? In any case, it is noticeable that the song’s criticism of the American middle class was also a self-criticism, which perhaps does not describe the folk boom of the early 1960s badly; think of the well-mannered demeanor of contemporaries Peter, Paul and Mary or The Kingston Trio.
“Little Boxes” was first published in 1962 by Reynolds himself. After Pete Seeger had made the song more popular the following year, The Womenfolk shortened the two minutes of the original in 1964 to a tight minute and almost became famous.
A popular word for inferior building material
It is difficult to develop a sociological treatise on such a short distance. The weariness of the single-family house conformity that accompanied the prosperity of the middle class in the post-war decades makes sense, however. (Barbara Cooper sings the line: And there’s doctors, and there’s lawyers, and business executives .) Society suffered from accidental egalitarianism. The person – or shall we say: the man – grows up, can be trained as a doctor, lawyer or managing director and quickly steps into the work force as well as a suburban drawer in one of four colors. Boxes made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same. The neologism, which Reynolds derived from “tacky” (tasteless), became the popular word for inferior building material at the time.
Later on I listened to all the Womenfolk records, you can find them on the internet. Musically, many of these recordings are excellent, the vocal harmonies testify to mastery. But you can also guess what marketing restrictions they were subject to. On record covers, the singers wore identical cotton dresses in peasant checks, one shows them tugging on a man with ribbons like a marionette. Subtext: Oh, you women folk! On the record sleeve of the first studio album (which also contains “Little Boxes”) label colleague Alex Hassilev from the band The Limeliters patronizingly praises The Womenfolk for “not only being completely feminine, witty and charming young women”, “but also singing – and playing – wonderfully “. Babs Cooper is “an All-American blonde who undoubtedly makes the best apple pie in town when she’s not singing”. A compliment then.
In 1966, The Womenfolk went their separate ways. Barbara Cooper released a few songs she wrote herself, including the languidly beautiful “What’s One More Tear” , which became a moderate hit in the British Northern soul scene and is now being traded by rarity hunters for several hundred euros. I learned on a fan blog that she wrote songs and lyrics for the advertising industry for a while before her music career ended. In the eighties she switched to the real estate business – did she sell little boxes ? -, later in legal word processing.
“Little Boxes” lost the title of the shortest hit in 2016 to the 45-second meme “PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen)” , which in turn was replaced in 2020 by Kid Cudi’s “Beautiful Trip” (37 seconds).
All of this is optional knowledge. But I owe it to Barbara Cooper that I understood the legendary stronghold of New York as a city of unplanned architecture. The Womenfolk website says about Barbara: “After surviving breast cancer in 1992 (…) and all the other countless problems of money, time and energy that we all know, she is still amazed, delighted and a little confused of the whims of it all. She admits the creativity still itches and looks forward to moving on. Your message: I’m still here and I’m still learning how to do it. Keep up!”