Why ‘Free to Be…You and Me’ Was The Most Important Album Of Our Youth

by Melissa Kirsch
Originally Published: 

1972 was a pretty radical year: Title IX legislation passed, prohibiting discrimination in schools on the basis of sex; Ms. magazine began regular publication; and Marlo Thomas and Friends released Free to Be…You and Me, the revolutionary album for kids featuring songs about gender stereotypes, equality and acceptance. What kid didn’t sit in the way back of the wood-paneled station wagon belting out anti-bullying anthem, “William’s Doll,” or the heartbreaking ode to crybabies everywhere, “It’s Alright to Cry”?

Marlo Thomas said she created Free to Be… after she went searching for a book of bedtime stories for her baby niece, only to find books that reinforced outmoded gender roles and ignored the possibilities that girls and boys could grow up to be whatever they wanted to be. She gathered some of her talented friends from the entertainment world (including Mel Brooks, Diana Ross and Alan Alda) and the album that would transform many a childhood was born.

While there are certainly parents who are playing Free to Be…You and Me for their kids today, there are many more who have moved on to more modern children’s albums. I gave my young niece the CD of the album a few years ago and was disappointed to find it unopened when I went to visit her recently. I was probably a little idealistic, foisting my childhood favorite on a new generation who would rather listen to the Teen Beach 2 or Frozen soundtracks, but the lessons—and the funky tunes—of Free to Be… are just as relevant, progressive, inspiring and sing-alongable today as they were when we were kids.

1. Free to Be…You and Me (music by Stephen J. Lawrence, lyrics by Bruce Hart, performed by The New Seekers)

The title song is still the best on the whole album, a rallying cry for children to live in a world where they can be whomever or whatever they want. Those gorgeous lyrics—”Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free”—call to mind another ’70s love-everybody hit, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” also by British pop group The New Seekers. Who didn’t want to live in a land where the horses run free? Who doesn’t still want to?

2. Boy Meets Girl (written by Carl Reiner and Peter Stone, performed by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas)

Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas are babies in this comedic to-and-fro. Brooks is positive Thomas is a boy and he’s a girl, due to some faulty baby logic—logic that seems suspiciously similar to the kind of gender stereotyping Thomas was trying to refute. You’re a boy because you’re bald, Brooks tells Thomas. And since Thomas wants to be a fireman and Brooks a cocktail waitress when they grow up, it seems obvious Thomas must be the boy and Brooks the girl. Then the nurse comes to change their diapers, and the confusion is cleared up.

3. When We Grow Up (music by Stephen J. Lawrence, lyrics by Shelly Miller, performed by Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson on the special and Diana Ross on the soundtrack)

Diana Ross sang this classic on the record, but in the 1974 TV version, Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson broke our hearts singing about their futures, wondering if she will grow up and be pretty, if he will be big and tall. They agree that no matter what happens when they grow up, they’ll still be friends forever. This song articulates a real fear that kids have but can’t necessarily put into words—what becomes of us when we become adults? How will we change? Will becoming “a lady” or “an engineer” alter who we are fundamentally?

4. Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron (written by Dan Greenburg, performed by Billy De Wolfe)

“A person should wear what he wants to […] a person’s a person that way.” Amen to all those kids picking out outfits that don’t match—or to myself as a kid, always in a turtleneck and corduroys instead of dresses.

5. Parents Are People (written by Carol Hall, performed by Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas)

It is kind of revolutionary when you’re a kid to think of your parents as people with jobs and interests outside of being mommies and daddies. This groovy ditty sung by Marlo Thomas and Harry Belafonte introduced the idea that parents were kids once too, and now that they’re grown-ups with children, “There are a lot of things a lot of mommies. And a lot of daddies, and a lot of parents can do.” And these things aren’t necessarily gender-specific. “Some mommies drive taxis, or sing on TV,” sings Thomas. “Well, they can’t be grandfathers. Or daddies,” Belafonte reminds her. One imagines even this point would be argued with today.

6. Housework (written by Sheldon Harnick, performed by Carol Channing)

I think this poem, read by Carol Channing, might be the most subversive track on Free to Be…. She breaks the news that the women in commercials smiling and selling soaps and cleansers for doing housework are actually paid to do so, and no one actually likes doing housework. She ends on an upbeat note, a bit of parental propaganda, advising children that housework is only tolerable if you do it together. (Translation: Get up and help your parents with the dishes already, kid.)

7. Helping (written by Shel Silverstein, performed by Tom Smothers)

A poem about that kid who comes over and breaks your toy. “Some kind of help is the kind of help that helping’s all about. And some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without,” goes the poem. I’d like to get a framed version of this and FedEx it anonymously to Warren and Brian, the kids who lived across the street from us in 1979, who came over one afternoon and totally trashed my room.

8. Ladies First (based on a Shel Silverstein poem, performed by Marlo Thomas)

A cautionary tale about the dangers of being a bratty princess! A track ridiculing the girl who insists she be treated like a lady seems fairly un-PC today, truth be told. But the ending, where the little prima donna who keeps asserting that she, as a lady, must always go first, gets her comeuppance and is first to be eaten by tigers is pretty priceless.

9. It’s All Right to Cry (written by Carol Hall, performed by Rosey Grier)

I dare you to watch this video of Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright to Cry” and not cry yourself. “It’s alright to feel things though the feelings may be strange. Feelings are such real things and they change and change and change.” As a bona fide crybaby who felt strongly it was not alright to cry under any circumstances unless you wanted to be ostracized or teased, this song was my jam.

10. William’s Doll (music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, performed by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas)

A boy who prefers a doll instead of sporting equipment is taunted with that whiney refrain, “A doll! A doll! William wants a doll!” Ugh, thank god for his grandma who sees that William wanting a doll to love is not “sissy” behavior but a pretty good idea so that when William has a baby someday, he’ll know how to care for it “as every good father should learn to do.” A defense of William, a retort to the bullies and a little something in there for dads and future dads—you should be planning on diapering and burping our future kids, too, guys.

11. Atalanta (written by Betty Miles, performed by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas)

A fairy tale about a very smart princess whom all of the boys want to marry. Atalanta decides to go out and see the world, as does her suitor. “Perhaps someday they’ll be married, and perhaps they will not. In any case, it is certain: They’re both living happily ever after.” A story whose moral is “not everyone gets married, and they’re still happy.” This could quite easily be the subject of a think piece published last week.

12. Girl Land (music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Bruce Hart, performed by Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones)

An eerie song about an amusement park called Girl Land that was never very much fun and is being closed down. A creepy master of ceremonies hisses: “Admission’s a wink and a toss of your curls […] you go in a girl and you come out a lady!” “Some say it’s a crime to be losing the trees you’re forbidden to climb,” Shirley Jones sings sarcastically. The whole song is a giant F-you to gender essentialism—the sinister MC lays out why Girl Land is such a nightmare: “You go in a girl and you never get out!” I love the message of this song now, but it’s not hard to see why it wasn’t a soft rock hit like “It’s Alright to Cry” was in the ’70s—it’s bloodcurdling.

13. Glad to Have a Friend Like You (written by Carol Hall, performed by Marlo Thomas)

This was the last song on the album, and it was just the sort of sweet pop song that you wanted Free to Be…You and Me to close out with. An irresistible tune about kids doing what they want to together and owning it. Jill teaches Bill to bake a cake, Bill teaches Jill to bait a fishhook and everyone’s happy. “Glad to have a friend like you…” goes the chorus, “…and glad to just be me.” The ultimate message of tolerance—I’ll do me, you do you, and we’ll all be good.

Listening to Free to Be…You and Me now leaves me feeling kind of exhausted. It’s such a tour de force, such a catchy rock album but also a pretty thorough education in gender politics in just 45 minutes. I missed so many of the powerful messages when I wore out the record when I was a kid—or perhaps, like the best media for kids, I absorbed a lot of it without realizing it. And hearing the catchy songs now, it’s clear their lessons are just as crucial for kids today as they were in the ’70s. Plus, no kid should grow up without hearing that exuberant title track at least once.

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