Encore: The 'Free to Be... You and Me' legacy 50 years later
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Fifty years ago, an album was released. It was a personal project that would go on to become a gold record and a television special, a book, a foundation and the anthem of a generation. Deena Prichep tells the origin story of "Free To Be... You And Me."
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: For so many people, all it takes to bring childhood rushing back are these opening bars...
(SOUNDBITE OF THE NEW SEEKERS' "FREE TO BE... YOU AND ME")
PRICHEP: ...The jangly banjo, the skipping rhythm and that vision.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE TO BE... YOU AND ME")
THE NEW SEEKERS: (Singing) There's a land that I see where the children are free. And I say, it ain't far to this land from where we are. Take my hand.
PRICHEP: The title song of "Free To Be... You And Me" lays out a kids' utopia - freedom to be who you truly are. But in 1972, that wasn't the message kids were getting. Actor Marlo Thomas discovered that reading a bedtime story to her 5-year-old niece.
MARLO THOMAS: And I said to my sister, these books are so old-fashioned. The prince is going to come along and kiss her, and the whole world's going to be OK. I mean, it took us years to get over that. And that's when I decided that I wanted to create a project for children that said that they were free to be anything they wanted to be.
PRICHEP: Thomas was fresh off starring in the popular sitcom "That Girl" and had a ton of connections.
THOMAS: I gathered some very talented people like Herb Gardner and Mel Brooks and Shel Silverstein and Paddy Chayefsky and Ed Kleban, who got the Pulitzer Prize for "A Chorus Line."
PRICHEP: In late-night sessions at Thomas' apartment, they talked about what kind of songs and poems and stories they wanted to tell and what kind of world they wanted to live in.
THOMAS: I gathered these people around, and I said to them, if you could have anything said to you in your childhood, what would you have wanted it to be? And Herb Gardner said, I would have liked to have been told that it was all right for a boy to cry. And from that came "It's All Right To Cry," the wonderful song by Carol Hall.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL RIGHT TO CRY")
ROSEY GRIER: (Singing) It's all right to cry. Crying gets the sad out of you. It's all right to cry. It might make you feel better.
THOMAS: And I said, I would have liked to be told that at the end of every fairy tale, the girl - the princess doesn't have to marry the prince and that she doesn't have to be a blonde all the time. So then we did "Atalanta."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATALANTA")
THOMAS: But now Atalanta is still off in the world, visiting towns and cities.
ALAN ALDA: And John is still sailing the seas. Perhaps someday they'll be married. And perhaps they will not.
MARLO THOMAS AND ALAN ALDA: In any case, it is certain they are both living happily ever after.
PRICHEP: In 1972, these messages were revolutionary. When the "Free To Be" television special came out a few years later, Thomas had to fight the networks to show a scene of her and the Black singer and actor Harry Belafonte just pushing strollers together. Married women couldn't even get their own credit cards. But this was also a time that so much was starting to change. Letty Cottin Pogrebin worked on "Free To Be... You And Me."
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: For so long, people had not questioned gender roles. They just were the norm. And suddenly, all around us were consciousness-raising groups and marches and caucuses at workplaces.
PRICHEP: Cottin Pogrebin is one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, which began earlier that same year, and sees that same revolutionary spirit in "Free To Be."
COTTIN POGREBIN: It really reaches into the soul of the child, and it says, I see you. I see who you are. And we're going to support the best you that you can become. And, you know, kids have the purest sense of justice of anybody. They just say, it's not fair that I can't do this. Why can't I do this?
PRICHEP: The songs and stories on "Free To Be" showed kids that they could question the world they lived in, that parents are just people and that emotions are real and what's on TV might not be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSEWORK")
CAROL CHANNING: That lady is smiling because she's an actress, and she's earning money for learning those speeches that mention those wonderful soaps and detergents and cleansers and cleaners and powders and pastes and waxes and bleaches.
PRICHEP: Carol Channing was just one of a whole cast of celebrities on the album - Diana Ross, Alan Alda, Rosey Grier. For the kids, this meant amazing performances, but it offered something for parents, too - role models saying that pushing back on gender norms and crying and being yourself were OK. And it got the album into schools and libraries and homes across the country. Musician Kimya Dawson grew up with it.
KIMYA DAWSON: Me and my best friend Pier used to sit around, and we had the book, and we had the record, and we loved "William Wants A Doll" (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAM'S DOLL")
ALDA: (Singing) When my friend William was 5 years old, he wanted a doll to hug and hold.
THOMAS: (Singing) A doll...
ALDA: (Singing) Said William.
THOMAS: (Singing) ...Is what I need, to wash and clean and dress and feed.
PRICHEP: For a tomboy growing up in the '70s, this provided affirmation. And as the culture shifted in the '80s, it was a source of support.
DAWSON: Even as a teen, I was still listening to it. When my older brother was in Desert Storm, I sent him a copy of the book while he was deployed. And I knew, you know, the messages that were being sort of forced onto the young soldiers over there. And I just wanted to make sure that he held on to some of that kindness and friendship and feeling your feelings.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WE GROW UP")
DIANA ROSS: (Singing) When I grow up, I'm going to be happy and do what I like to do, like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
PRICHEP: Kids today who feel alone in their family or their town can find a community with just a TikTok search. But 50 years ago, this album was a lifeline. Marlo Thomas says she still hears that.
THOMAS: So many people, you know, stop me on the street - gay men who say, when that song came out, you saved my life. When I heard "William Wants A Doll," I thought, I'm going to be OK.
PRICHEP: Over the past 50 years, there have been huge changes when it comes to gender and family in this country. Some of this album is dated, but so much still resonates.
THOMAS: Every generation needs this album or something like it because the issues are the same. The world continues to question these things. And I think we have to be ready with the answers.
PRICHEP: Which are, it's all right to cry, it's all right to wonder and to feel things and that you and me are free to be you and me. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE TO BE... YOU AND ME")
THE NEW SEEKERS: (Singing) Every boy in this land grows to be his own man. In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman. Take my hand. Come with me, where the children are free. Come with me. Take my hand. And we'll run to a land where the river runs free, to a land through the green country, to a land, to a shining sea, to a land where the horses run free, to a land where the children are free. And you and me are free to be. And you and me are free to be. And you and me are free to be you and me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.