The Life and Times of Malvina Reynolds, Long Beach's Most Legendary (and Hated) Folk Singer
The caravan of Klansmen crept to a stop around midnight in front of the home of David and Lizzie Milder on Nov. 17, 1932. Their quaint bungalow in the Carroll Park neighborhood of Long Beach had just played host to a fund-raiser for the International Labor Defense (ILD), a group affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Members were seeking donations for the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teens whose convictions in the rape of two white women in Alabama had recently been overturned. That night, Ben Isgur, boyfriend of the Milders' youngest daughter, Eleanor, spoke eloquently about the injustice in the case—and that was just too much for the KKK.
Klan members from Orange County united with their Long Beach brothers for the raid. About 50 eventually gathered outside the Milder house, armed with guns, clubs, rubber hoses and a gasoline-soaked wooden cross. The family's very existence—Jewish, immigrant, communist, anti-racist—could not stand. They planted the cross on the Milders' lawn and set it ablaze. Klansmen stood guard with guns drawn at the porch while others tried to break through the front door.
David, Lizzie, their son Samuel and other daughter, Malvina, were sipping coffee with Isgur when the Invisible Empire tried to barge in. The family leapt from the table and tried to keep the door from budging—but it wasn't enough. A group of hooded men circled around to the back entrance and found a way in.
"Where are you hiding all your communist literature?" they yelled. Samuel's wife, Miriam, pranked the raiders, pointing them to a pile of everyday newsstand magazines, which the KKK promptly tossed out the window. They then demanded everyone take a ride in the Klan cars—but the Milders wouldn't go quietly.
Reynolds singing the truth
"Won't somebody help us?" Malvina cried to neighbors. "They're killing us!" A Klansman struck her in the jaw, gagged her with a handkerchief and dragged her outside. They beat her father down with a rubber hose and broke Samuel's shoulder. Neighbors rushed outside to assist, but the armed Klansmen kept them at bay. The Klan finally forced the Milders and their guests into cars and prepared to speed off when the Long Beach Police Department's "Red Squad"—tasked with monitoring left-wing activities in the city—just happened to swing by. They stopped the attempted kidnapping, but not before the Klansmen left handbills reading, "Communism will not be tolerated! The Ku Klux Klan rides again."
The midnight raid scarred the Milders and made national headlines—but it also gave birth to a legendary troubadour. The eldest Milder daughter went on to become one of the fiercest folks singers in American history. Malvina Reynolds used the terror of the Klan raid to fuel a life and career of radical politics, organizing and writing columns and even running for the Long Beach City Council. But her most lasting legacy are her tunes of justice, songs covered by Joan Baez, Marianne Faithfull and other musical giants, most famously Pete Seeger, who popularized her "Little Boxes," the stinging critique of suburbia more familiar to modern-day listeners as the theme song for the TV series Weeds.
As prolific and storied as Reynolds' life was, no one has ever written a biography about her. Mentions of her life in Long Beach are rare. Nevertheless, the themes in Reynolds' political music—economic justice, environmentalism, women's rights and anti-racism—remain all too relevant today.
* * * * *
Reynolds and Schimmel perform in Japan in 1970
Courtesy Nancy Schimmel
Malvina Reynolds' musical life seemed destined to be intertwined with activism. Two years after her birth in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 1900, her parents joined the Socialist Party. David Milder, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, served in the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and ran a naval tailor shop in the city. He soon became consumed with politics, helping to start The Revolt weekly newspaper and even running as the party's candidate for city tax collector.
Along the way, he befriended radical labor organizer Tom Mooney, who indirectly gave Reynolds her start in music. In 1916, Mooney was charged with setting off a suitcase bomb that had killed 10 people and injured scores more during a pro-World War I parade in San Francisco. Milder took a teenaged Reynolds to the activist's home so his daughter could take violin lessons from Mooney's wife, Rena, who was teaching classes to survive after being acquitted in her husband's trial. Reynolds excelled beyond her teacher's ability, but she wanted to pursue literary, not musical, ambitions in college. There was only one snag; her parents' opposition to World War I caused her high school to deny her a diploma.
Teachers helped Reynolds enroll at the University of California at Berkeley despite being blacklisted. She majored in English while playing violin in a dance band. One day in class, a professor had students study old British ballads as poetry. Reynolds quickly realized the ballads weren't meant to be read as poems, but sung as music. "Why don't you sing them for us?" the professor asked when she pointed this out.
Reynolds graduated with a degree in English, but the Milders' socialist reputation made jobs hard to come by in the Bay Area. The family moved to San Pedro in 1925, then Long Beach so David could open up a tailor shop to serve naval fleets. Reynolds joined her family in 1931, after dropping out of graduate school. By then, the Milders had joined the Communist Party and happily hosted fund-raisers and political meetings at their home.
Long Beach during the Great Depression was proudly white, Protestant and conservative—an Iowa-By-the-Sea far removed from the Milders' Marxism. When the Long Beach Press-Telegram ran a series of articles in 1932 warning of active communist groups in the city, it easily struck fear in the hearts of its readers. It was inevitable the Klan would go after the Milders.
"I was very much frightened," Reynolds recounted in 1977 during a KPFK-FM 90.7 radio interview with Dorothy Healey, a communist labor leader who met the musician in San Pedro three years after the raid. "These guys [were] about to load us into cars to take us away. They had lynch ropes in the car."
The Klan thought law enforcement would let them go; to their surprise, police took 16 members for questioning. Four identified themselves as Orange County peace officers with legal permits to possess firearms. Twelve got released on the grounds the victims could not positively identify their attackers. Four stayed in jail, accused of being the masterminds; those Klansmen were eventually convicted on assault charges but only got six-month sentences and $500 fines.
Reynolds took the stand to identify her attacker, but she knew the legal system wouldn't deliver justice. "When we came to court, there was evidence of what these guys carried on the table—[the weapons] looked like twigs!" she told Healey.
She tried moving on with life. After her first marriage dissolved, she began a relationship with Bud Reynolds, a high-school sweetheart. The two departed for Nebraska, where Bud had been assigned to unionize workers. Malvina gave birth to their only daughter, Nancy, in 1935; the new family headed to Berkeley later that year and got married. Once there, she re-enrolled at UC Berkeley, earning a doctorate in romance philology in 1939.
But the same problem that originally drove her out of the Bay Area prevented Reynolds from finding steady work. Around that time, she began writing for the Daily People's World, the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA. Soon after, the FBI started a file on her.
The death of her father in 1944 brought Reynolds back to Long Beach to run the family shop with Bud. After Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II, the two sold the business, and Reynolds left stitching sailor clothes for her true passion: writing songs of discontent. "I wrote fiction and poetry before that, but it didn't roll until I picked up a guitar," she wrote in her book Little Boxes and Other Handmade Songs. "What a guitar it was! A big old F-hole orange crate with a crack in the back."
* * * * *
Reynolds giving lessons in her Long Beach living room
Courtesy Nancy Schimmel
Reynolds began her musical career at 45, as the post-World War II folk-music revival was getting fine-tuned with the return of key players. Woody Guthrie's time as a merchant marine led to his most prolific stretch. Seeger had done a stint entertaining the troops, and in late 1945, he helped to start People's Songs, an organization anchoring the folk revival's left-wing flank.
People's Songs' inaugural bulletin laid out its mission to "create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people." They put out monthly publications and organized "hootenannies," spreading to cities across the country, including Los Angeles. Reynolds first met Seeger at a People's Songs shindig in LA in 1947.
"Here's this middle-aged woman, white hair. To my male eyes, she seemed one more housewife," Seeger recounted in a radio documentary about her life that's on file in the Pacifica Radio Archives. "Yet, she heard me and some other singers and said, 'I want to try writing songs, too.'" She took guitar lessons from Earl Robinson, an influential composer blacklisted from Hollywood, during his People's Songs classes in LA.
Reynolds got her chance to sing in 1948 when People's Songs threw its musical support behind Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who was vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Independent Progressive Party (IPP) formed in California to support Wallace, and Reynolds became the IPP's chairman in Long Beach. She wrote an "Adventures of a Doorbell Ringer" column for Daily People's World, noting interesting conversations going on in Long Beach homes.
"Tell me, granting that you don't go with Wallace on this question, doesn't his platform on other matters please you enough that you could pass this one up for now?" Reynolds asked after failing to sell a white worker on Wallace's pledge to end racial discrimination.
"Ma'am," he responded, "'I'd rather have Negroes living next door to me, eating in the same restaurants with me and riding beside me in the street car than to have monopolies ruling over me."
The Reynolds house became a stop for like-minded musicians and activists. "Paul Robeson came to dinner once," recalls Reynolds' daughter, Nancy Schimmel. "It was a big dinner in his honor." The Reynoldses loved to entertain guests, political or personal, with a witty sense of humor. "My parents liked to throw parties—my mother for the food and dancing and singing, my father for the chitchat," Schimmel says. "She encouraged me to bring my friends home—and to use the dictionary!"
When Reynolds wasn't ringing doorbells or hosting parties, she was performing at Wallace rallies. She scored her first hit in progressive circles with the roman á clef "Sing Along." The catchy tune's opening lines speak of a timid troubadour who gains confidence from a sing-along crowd:
My congressman's important, he hobnobs with big biz,
He soon forgets the guys and gals who put him where he is.
I'll just write him a letter to tell him what I need,
With a hundred thousand signatures, why, even he can read.
Despite the efforts of People's Songs and like-minded activists, Wallace's campaign failed; he earned less than 2.4 percent of the vote, as incumbent Harry S Truman squeaked past Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey. People's Songs folded the following year because of financial problems, but Reynolds continued. She wrote "Magic Penny" and "Bury Me In My Overalls" during her time in Long Beach. Of "Magic Penny," Schimmel recalls, "I came home from [a junior high school] dance, and she had written this song about dancing the night away. That was one of her most popular songs."
The inspiration for "Bury Me In My Overalls" came from something more ominous. Bud worked various construction sites as a union carpenter with the American Federation of Labor until political organizing caught up with his health; he suffered a heart attack from all the stress. Reynolds worried about her husband and wrote the song, taking on the fear of death with a touch of humor and working-class thrift:
The undertaker will get my dough,
The grave will get my bones,
And what is left will have to go
For one of those granite stones,
But this suit cost me two weeks' pay
So let it live another day,
And bury me in my overalls.
Bud died of a stroke in 1971.
* * * * *
Reynolds and Schimmel in Long Beach circa 1948
Courtesy Nancy Schimmel
As Reynolds networked with national figures, she still involved herself in local politics. In 1950, the Long Beach City Council planned to adopt an ordinance requiring Communists to register. Reynolds spoke in vain against it. Frustrated with a city hall she felt was beholden to oil barons, Reynolds decided to take them on in April 1951 by running for a council seat. Her platform: municipally owned electricity, fair wages for city employees and expanding recreational facilities. Running under the IPP banner, Reynolds survived the primary and prepared to face off in the general election against Third District incumbent Raymond Kealer, a petroleum engineer and chairman of the council's oil, harbor and industries committee. She was the only woman candidate that year.
Though Reynolds held a doctorate and did political work, her ballot designation read, "housewife." If Reynolds' foray into politics was that of a housewife, she pledged in an open letter to Long Beach residents to clean up local politics from the stain of big business "with hot water, soap and a broom!"
A war of words soon broke out among Daily People's World, Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Long Beach Independent over Reynolds' campaign, a skirmish documented by the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee. The Independent—which had covered Reynolds objectively during her primary race—struck first with the May 18, 1951, headline "Council Candidate Closely Allied to Red Front." The article noted that she "registered as a Communist in Alameda County [in] September 1942." And even though she canceled the registration two years later, the story sternly noted, Reynolds remained active in organizations with communist ties such as the Daily People's World and the Long Beach chapter of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization principally funded by Reynolds' weekly guitar classes to suburbanites and their children.
The Daily People's World fired back two days later, calling the Independent's article a "Red herring smeared with oil" and offering Reynolds space to respond. "The [Independent's] article 'accuses' me of defending civil rights and working actively for world peace," Reynolds said. "Such activities which conform to the desires of every honest person can only be attacked with red-baiting."
The Press-Telegram hyped the election in an editorial as "the most important council the city has ever had." Long Beach expected a $175 million oil boom to flow into the city's coffers during the next term thanks to the Justice Department exempting the city from tideland litigation, with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to follow suit. Reynolds campaigned hard to have oil taxes benefit all residents of Long Beach, a message she framed in a long-lost untitled song preserved only in her daughter's memory. "It was a song about better use of the oil taxes for civic improvement rather than for lining people's pockets," Schimmel says before singing the verse:
We'll have a wondrous city
With boulevards and trees
A play land at the water
For every son and daughter
Beside the bluest seas!
A day before the election, Reynolds addressed the "Communist Question," in the Press-Telegram while stressing her platform. "The story of registration at another time and in another climate is old news by now," Reynolds said. "The program I propose for Long Beach is new news—and good news." IPP members pushed hard, dropping off 40,000 leaflets at households and mailing another 20,000.
The Press-Telegram predicted a blowout despite calling Reynolds "one of the most active campaigners" in the race. And they were right: Kealer walloped Reynolds with 34,449 votes to her 5,584. The Daily People's World tried to put a positive spin on her performance, writing that 13 percent of the vote was "impressive" in light of "a red-baiting campaign conducted against her for several weeks by [Long Beach's] two commercial newspapers."
But Reynolds' time in Long Beach was about to end. The FBI kept up its surveillance of Reynolds: An August 1952 report described her as "a very active Communist in the Long Beach community." "I have nothing to say to you," Reynolds told an agent who approached her as she hung laundry outside her home. "Beat it off my property now."
Had she won the election, Reynolds would've stayed in the city for at least the duration of her three-year term. But defeated, with her daughter enrolled at her alma mater up north and tired of the city's right-wing politics, Reynolds moved back to Berkeley in 1953, never to return to Long Beach.
* * * * *
Schimmel returns to the site of the KKK raid
By her own admission, Reynolds never had a great singing voice. "She felt that the best tunes grew out of the rise and fall and tempo of the speaking voice," says Schimmel. But despite that limitation and her late start, Reynolds found a following after leaving Long Beach by expressing complex truths with poetic simplicity. In 1960, at age 59, she recorded her first album with Folkways Records, Another County Heard From, which included "Sing Along." Two years later, while driving through Daly City on the way to a gig, Reynolds told Bud to take over the wheel so she could write "Little Boxes," a tune poking fun at the suburban conformity sprouting on Daly City's hillsides.
Seeger covered "Little Boxes" in 1963, and it was a hit. Reynolds didn't get a chance to commercially release her version until landing a deal with Columbia Records, resulting in the 1967 album Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth. Since then, "Little Boxes" has lived on in an array of covers from slain Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara to a newer generation of musicians who recorded their versions to serve as the intro theme for Weeds on Showtime.
For all its drama, Reynolds never wrote about the Klan raid of her parents' home in Long Beach. But Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth does include "Battle of Maxton Field," a song she penned in 1958 after Lumbee Indians ran off the Klan during a North Carolina rally. "She sat down and wrote that song that day, words and music, and sang it that night," Schimmel says, calling the song her mom's "revenge."
Reynolds recorded more albums; wrote children's music; started her own label, Cassandra Records; published songbooks; and toured overseas well into her late 70s. She even appeared on Sesame Street as a folk singer named "Kate."
"I can almost hear them saying, 'Who is this old bat?'" Reynolds told Healey. She'd win them over with clever storytelling between songs. "In about 10 minutes, they're singing along with me and laughing."
While working on songs for her final album, Purely Political, a friend asked Reynolds to come to Orange County for a protest at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. "I was cranky about it, but when I got there, it was a great demonstration!" Reynolds told Healey. The rally left such an impression on Reynolds that it inspired one of her last hits, "Power Plant Reggae."
Reynolds died on March 17, 1978, after pancreatitis caused her kidneys to fail. She wanted little fanfare to mark her passing—in "Wake for a Singer," Reynolds wrote, "Celebrate my death, of whom it could be said/She was a working-class woman and a red." Family and friends held a private wake at her Berkeley home, but a public memorial concert followed, with Seeger closing out a lineup that included Margie Adam and Chicago's Steve Goodman. Two years later, Purely Political was posthumously released as Mama Lion.
Schimmel wants her mother's story to be fully told. She asked famed folklorist Ellen Stekert to write a biography of Reynolds, but illness kept Stekert from pursuing the project. Schimmel started blogging about her mom in 2006 and even visited her grandparents' Long Beach house, the one the Klan raided decades ago. A singer in her own right, Schimmel hopes to transform the blog into Out of the Box, a book with more of a memoir feel.
Uncle Ruthie Buell befriended Reynolds after many interviews between the two on Buell's Halfway Down the Stairs, which has aired on KPFK since 1959. Both women shared being Jewish folk singers with People's Songs pasts. The Children's Music Network honored Buell for her lifetime of work in 2010 with its Magic Penny Award, named for Reynolds' song.
"When you're a songwriter, you don't die," says the 86-year-old Buell, who continues to teach Reynolds' songs to blind children in Hollywood. "You get to live forever."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.