Saturday, November 7, 2009

Housing Project

I have been involved in a project modeled after Habitat For Humanity, except that instead of building houses from scratch, we are performing extensive renovations. Because much of the work is done by volunteers, (myself included), it takes a long time. We’ve been working on one house for over a year now. As it turned out, the house needed to have completely new wiring and plumbing, it was is converted from oil to gas heat, walls were removed or moved, all of the windows were replaced... It has been pretty amazing. I wanted to help, but I am not exactly handy. I had always assumed that these jobs were things you paid someone else to do. How they were done was something I thought would always be a mystery to me.

Now the project is reaching the point where the house is starting to be put back together. It is possible to imagine it as a house, and not just a shell. And this got me thinking about houses, and the songs about them.

Pete Seeger: Little Boxes


Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes in 1963, when housing developments were a new thing. She saw them as a symbol of conformity. Reynolds coined the term “ticky-tacky” for this song; you can now find the term in the dictionary.

I chose Pete Seeger’s version of Little Boxes over the Reynolds original, because this is the version I first heard. The song was part of my childhood. My parents embraced the sentiment of the song as a way to encourage me and my brothers to not take the common path, to dare to think for ourselves.

John Mellencamp: Pink Houses


I would love to hear someone like Richard Shindell do a solo acoustic version of Pink Houses. John Mellencamp recorded the song at the peak of his popular success, as the rock anthem heard here. But the song is not that far removed from folk songwriting in terms of structure and lyrical content. Mellencamp presents sketches portraits of three people who dreamed of better things in their lives, prompted by the fact that they were each able to buy a house. But each of these dreams has hit a dead end. These houses may be the same ones Reynolds wrote about, but twenty years later, and with their original owners long gone.

Crosby Stills Nash & Young: Our House


My last two selections are about particular houses. CSNY describe this house as a refuge from the stresses of life. Here, love blooms in a jar flowers in one the windows. In my house, however, one of the cats always tries to eat the blossoms. So this song is not so much about a physical place as a state of mind.

Madness: Our House


Madness performs my last selection, and that fits. Here is a house full of people, always in hurry and often running late. And yet, in the midst of all this, there is a sweet memory of a quieter time. This last one is a house, yes, but also a home. And sometimes the family that lives there gets a chance to catch their breaths, and remember that.


Susan said...

Hey, Darius -

Great post... and good on you for helping in this home renovation - appreciative family: priceless!

I love that the series Weeds used Little Boxes as their theme for the first three seasons: the first being only the original and the second and third consisting of covers - more here:

P.S. Love the Graham Nash song too... written for our Joni - sweet... :-)

Linda - SE PA said...


Very good commentary!

The volunteer housing is wonderful!

I loved hearing the timely Little Boxes... how true and even as things are today, in my area, a few developments are still going up.

And Mellencamp fit in perfectly!

What is left to say about CSNY and Our House except to say I enjoyed your commentary on it. I love CSNY, have seen them live several times - have sang this song as well as Teach Your Children at a concert - however, I find I am now finished. Perhaps, in time. It is not a dislike, a boredom or whatever, it is overplay etc. etc.

James said...

Nice post, Darius.

I gotta say something about "Little Boxes". It's always grated on me. It's always struck me as the theme song of lefty elitism. The invention of "housing developments meant the opportunity of urban home ownership was available to demographics beyond the upper middle class. This is before the concept of "McMansions". The song is clearly about "low cost housing". The line about "their children all look alike", is probably what revolts me about the song. Sure, they all look alike to Reynolds and Seeger. Anyone who is not a wealthy patron or a member of the "creative community" looks the same to them.

I don't know. Maybe it's just me.