Forty years ago this month, a group of my friends and I released "Free to Be... You and Me," a children's record created to expel the gender and racial stereotypes of the era, while rewriting all those pat "happily ever afters" that dominated the fairy tales of our youth. Our mission was simple: to convince children that their dreams were not only boundless, but achievable.
What happened next stunned all of us: the record immediately went platinum. This inspired us to follow up with a companion book and a TV special, both of which enjoyed the popularity of the original LP.
"Free to Be... You and Me" was suddenly no longer just a title. It became a coined phrase -- a cultural touchstone -- that spoke of the times in which we lived. It was also a commercial success, which allowed Gloria Steinem, Pat Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and me to use proceeds from the project to co-found the Ms Foundation, to help women and children in need.
This month's 40th anniversary caused quite a buzz, and all of us who were involved in its creation were touched by the fuss that was made over our big birthday. Newspapers interviewed us about it; seminars were held to discuss it; even a new book was written about it: When We Were Free To Be: Looking Back at a Children's Classic and the Difference it Made.
It's gratifying to be honored for the past, but in speaking with some of my collaborators, we decided not to look back, but to look forward. And just like we ask children who are still picking up the book these 40 years later to open their minds to all the possibilities, we ask ourselves what we would tell children today that would make them even more "Free to Be?"
For me, I'd want to write them a love song. One that croons to them how beautiful they
are no matter what they look like, how smart they are no matter their grades, and that
each child they meet is just the same. And somewhere in the lyric (if I knew how to write
a song), I'd try to teach girls and boys about the cruelty of bullying, and of telling anyone
who they can love. And I'd end my song with the words: "You = Me."
I've always loved the afterword Kurt Vonnegut wrote for the "Free to Be" book. That's
because Kurt crystallized the vision that all of us had for the project.
Kurt wrote: "I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling
them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off it, how to avoid poison ivy,
and so on."
How wonderful that "Free to Be... You and Me" would become that little manual that Kurt
imagined. And how grateful we are that it continues to be handed down from generation
to generation. That was our secret dream.
Happy 40th, "Free to Be!"
Here's what some of our collaborators had to say about what "Free to Be" might look like
in 2012. Enjoy!
Carol Hall (composer/lyricist): What would I tell children today that would make them even more Free to Be? I would tell them that the world is big, but that it's getting smaller and smaller every day and that they can make the most of it: They can open up their
computers and talk to children on other sides of the world. They can Skype someone millions of miles away and learn how other people live and play and go to school and learn.
They can think about the fact that every single person in the entire world has the sky
above their head and the earth below their feet.
Every single person.
If I were starting a song, I might call it "We're All In This Together."
I also like the idea of encouraging political activism. (Marlo had a fun title for a song about that -- "It's All Right To Speak Up!") Children often feel that no one is listening to them, but if lots of kids bring their voices together, there is strength and power in that. If people who feel the same way about something combine their voices, those voices will beheard.
What if there was a song called "A Little Tiny Voice"? And what if it started with one kid
singing it and ended with a hundred thousand kids singing it?
The more I write -- and the more I think about this --- the more I'm convinced that there's still a world of things for us to say to our free children.
Harry Belafonte (sang on the album, appeared in the TV special): To all the young people who may one day read this, many in my generation morally failed in the care and
protection of the generations that were yet to be. We fell prey to greed and in our lust for power, destroyed much of the world that we inherited.
But let not our failure destroy your spirit. As you wend your way through the labyrinth of
our indifference, know that there are some who have left you the guide to the treasures of
hope that, if retrieved, can help bring you to the better parts of humanity. Finding these
treasures will be your greatest task. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "We shall overcome
Each and every one of you is that "someday."
Alan Alda (directed the performances on the album; narrated and sang on the album and the TV special): "I still wish for us all, young and old, the chance to be Free to Be who we are deep down -- but now that I've lived an extra 40 years, I wish for even more: to be free to become what we can, to reach above ourselves. To think of the happiest, kindest, lovingest, laughingest, creative person we can possibly be -- and then be it."
Carole Hart (co-producer): I think "Free to Be" itself is pointing us to its next iteration.
We need to encourage and assist children in connecting to each other, moving from "Free
to Be...You and Me" to "Free to Be...We." We need to help kids tap back into their innate
relationship with the natural world and initiate them into its magical ways of
bringing things together for the greater good.
This thinking brought me to the end of the special 35th Anniversary edition of the
book, in which we added a new poem written by David Slavin, who was inspired by an
illustration gifted to us by the great artist Peter Sis. It's called "If Wishes Were Fishes."
In it, a fish instructs a young boy on how to live on Mother Earth in peace and harmony,
which leads the little boy to conclude:
I'd love to animate that piece and set it to music.
And then I found myself re-reading Kurt Vonnegut's Afterword in the book, to which Marlo serendipitously refers. He concludes that if he were to write a manual for kids he would teach them about cultural diversity and relativity; that there are thousands of cultures and they all work pretty well. And that is a source of hope. We can learn from each other.
That, for me, mandates a whole new set of songs, stories and poems -- and maybe some
interactive pieces as well -- celebrating multiculturalism and its teachings.
Finally, I'm remembering the last words of the "Free to Be" television special that came
from a song performed by the Voices of East Harlem. It's a simple lyric couched in a
The final image of the TV special is a photo of Mother Earth from space. As we look at
this stunning image of our planet, we hear the Voices of East Harlem singing the words:
May it be so. May it be so. May it be so.
Gloria Steinem (wrote prologue for the book; co-founder of the Ms Foundation, which benefited from the project's proceeds): "Free to Be...You and Me" is a classic because its truths are universal, and that means they take changing forms. So how about a song called "Who Needs to Bully?" The first verse would be about the person who bullies, who believes he or she has only two choices: to be the victim or to be the victimizer. The second verse would be about the big freedom that comes to both victim and victimizer when they learn that people are linked, not ranked.
Or how about a story called "It's Never Okay to Hit" -- told by a grown-up who was abused as a child and thought it was her or his shame and fault? The final words would be: "If even one generation of children were raised without violence, we have no idea what might be possible on this Space Ship Earth."
Finally, we need a parable that tells the story of women and girls who are forced and pressured into having babies they don't want. It would tell the truth about why nations and religions have done the forcing, and its last line would be: "Every child has a right to be born loved and wanted." Its title would be, "My Body Is Mine."
And now for a not-so-serious P.S.: Kids love songs and stories in which they are the grown-ups. How about: "How I Taught My Dad to Stop Smoking," or "How I Got My Mom to Vote for What I Need in School."
Stephen Lawrence (composer, musical director): If I could update the message of "Free to Be...You and Me," I would want to help children be comfortable in their bodies. Kids may be the ideal weight for their height and age, and yet they can somehow believe that they are overweight or underweight, too tall or too short. It's almost as if they need to see themselves as "imperfect." Many young girls worry about their weight to the point of
obsession, leading to such extreme conditions as anorexia or bulimia. And boys are not immune to a fixation with body-image. Some become preoccupied with building bulk and muscle -- which, within reason, is a good thing -- but they can get overly invested in attaining a physical ideal that may be beyond their reach. The media often contributes to this problem by sending a message to children that projects an impossible perfection. I believe that children would benefit from a far more important message: What you are -- and what you look like -- is good and worthy of love.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin (consultant; co-founder of the Ms Foundation): What should we tell children today that would make them feel even more "Free to Be?"
Making "Free to Be...You and Me" was such an unforgettable experience for me -- and I loved "hanging out" with the kids. This picture was used in the original version of the book.
"Free to Be...You and Me" was no walk in the park -- it was a lot of hard work! Luckily, on this gorgeous autumn day I was able to take a little time out for a Central Park stroll with the kids.
This photo ended up on the cover of the "Free to Be...You and Me" video. I'd love to find out what became of my two little playmates here. Hey, you two -- if you're on Facebook and you see this, let me know!
I was so thrilled when my dear friend Alan Alda agreed to be a part of the project. Recording with Alan was just so much fun, and he's got the best laugh in the world!
On the record and TV versions of "Free to Be...You and Me," Mel Brooks and I did the voices of two babies trying to figure out who was the girl and who was the boy. Do I need to tell you how funny it was to work with Mel? I think not!
Working with Mel Brooks is never dull. He is just too funny. This was taken the day we recorded "The Babies" piece. Look at that twinkle!
Harry Belafonte and I teamed up to sing "Parents Are People" for the "Free to Be...You and Me" sound track. I'm not a great singer, but I can carry a tune -- and really, anyone sounds good in a duet with Harry!
My dear friend Lily Tomlin makes me laugh all the time, but this is the wildly funny character many people associate with her -- Ernestine the telephone operator. Who can forget her "one ringy-dingy.... two ringy-dingy..." routine? In this skit on "Free to Be...A Family" Ernestine dialed the Soviet Union to link them up to the USA.
Whoopi Goldberg contributed a wonderful story called "Doris Knows Everything" to the "Free to Be...A Family" book -- and she also made an appearance on the TV special, where we dressed up in pinstriped suits to play a couple of mobsters.
One of the best parts of "Free to Be ...You and Me" was showing boys and girls all the different careers that were equally open to them -- and I got to be the model for all of them. Here I am as a business executive. (Why I have an umbrella on a sunny day is beyond me....)
Here I am depicting another career choice in "Free to Be...You and Me" -- as a New York City taxi driver. It was a lot of fun, but in truth, I don't think I'd make a very good cabbie. For one thing, I have no sense of direction.
Marlo Thomas, welder. That terrified look on my face isn't entirely acting. I'm not completely comfortable wielding a blowtorch....
When I was growing up, I saw only male doctors. Later, when I did "Free to Be...You and Me," I thought it was important to play a physician so little girls could see that the profession was wide open to them too.
Here I was playing a photographer in "Free to Be...You and Me." And let me go on record: I was a "scenic photographer," NOT a paparazzi!
I'm about as comfortable with a jackhammer as I am with a blowtorch! But I wanted to show that all kinds of jobs -- from blue (and pink!) collar to white-collar professionals -- were open to all kids, regardless of gender, class, or race.
On the set with Roberta Flack and a sweet 14-year-old Michael Jackson. Michael and Roberta sang "When We Grow Up," which included the line: "We like what we look like. We don't have to change at all." If only Michael had hung on to that notion.
Kris Kristofferson sang "Circle of Friends" with his then-wife Rita Coolidge -- with a (very) little help from me!
"Free to Be" could never have happened without my dear friends Letty Pogrebin and Carole Hart. Here we all are together in the mid-'90s.
A happy coalition (from left), Letty Cottin Pogrebin, me, Gloria and Pat Carbine, all of us co-founders of the Ms. Foundation.
Follow Marlo Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarloThomas