Music of My Youth: Free to Be…You and Me

Ages and ages ago, or 1972 to be more precise, an album came out that was aimed squarely at kids around my age. It was Free to Be…You and Me. The album tried to build on a movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s to foster gender neutrality, racial equality, tolerance, and a belief that anyone could be whatever or whoever they wanted to be. It was produced by Marlo Thomas, and featured practically anyone who was anyone at the time.

Fast forward 46 years, and the album is relevant again (or still, depending on your point of view). And as you’d probably expect, all along its history, the album has drawn the ire of those who claim it’s emasculating. Or ignores traditional values. Or something along those lines. The arguments against Me Too or Black Lives Matter or any calls for equality haven’t ever changed, even 40-plus years on, it’s the same tired refrain.

But back to the record. I loved this album. I listened and sang along to it every chance I had in kindergarten. And listened to it a lot when I got a copy at home.

And just to complete the message of the album, picture this: I’m in kindergarten. I’d constructed “microphones” out of giant Tinkertoys, and my best friend, Sarah–an African-American girl–are belting out the songs along with the album in class during free time. 

Because of course we would.

I don’t know how exactly I got introduced to the album. I started in kindergarten in 1974 so by then the album was about two years old. But in March 1974, there was a TV special…An hour long show with many of the songs and skits from the album, plus some extras. More on that later…After you watch the open:

Catchy tune, right? They opened on a strength, I’m telling you!

Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past either my kindergarten teacher or my mom to introduce something so sneakily subversive into my life. And clearly I loved it, which either woman would have loved. Because even then, I knew what the album was talking about. It was kinda hard to miss.

(The best line: “What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman. How about you? A cocktail waitress! Does that prove anything to you?” This skit was co-written by Carl Reiner.)

And yes, that was Mel Brooks there with Marlo as the babies. And Alan Alda was on the album. As was Rosie Grier, Carol Channing, and Michael Jackson, among others. Oh, and the title song up top? That was performed by the New Seekers. I’ll clue you in on them at the end for those that don’t know them.

Okay, so back to the origin story as it pertains to my life. I don’t know how this came into my life, though I may have discovered it with the TV special in 1974. 

But this thing would always seem to find its way back into my life.

I was an A/V nerd through elementary school, taught to load and run the filmstrip projectors (look those up, you youngsters out there–and loved the automatic ones, but I’ll save that for another post maybe), shown how to use and thread the black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape recorders/players we had at school, and I was trained to thread and run the 16mm film projectors.

I was running the movies for my classes by the middle of second grade. And my favorite movie to run was Free to Be…You and Me. Why? It was a two-reeler. About 45 minutes of movie. 45 minutes of non-educational movie or so we thought). Which usually meant that the teacher would get 2 projectors from the library, and I’d have to switch from one to the other midway through, looking for the cue mark on the film to start up the second projector.

Yep. Just like the theaters. It was the big time, man.

Free to Be…You and Me was 45 minutes of nerdy bliss. By the time I showed the movie, I’d listened to it probably hundreds of times. So I could watch the reel on the first projector as it worked its way down and got closer and closer to the end, so that I could then focus on the screen. 

Oh yeah. And it was an important social statement as well. I suppose.

I’ve had that album hanging around in my life for a very long time. I’d come back and listen to some of it into adulthood, and played it for my kids more than once. Though I don’t think it impacted them as much as it did me. 

But back in 2006, the album was remastered and reissued. And just a few years ago, digital versions were made available on Google Play or iTunes. So I can listen to a nice clean version of the album I grew up loving as a somewhat scratched up mess. 

I just listened to it again recently–beginning-to-end. And found I haven’t forgotten many lyrics. Funny how those stick with you.

Before I close, remember the New Seekers? No? They had a hit in 1971 that came from an ad jingle for Coca-Cola (yeah, the jingle came first):