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Pete Seeger, Who Died Yesterday, Kind of Hated the Peninsula

Scott Lucas | January 28, 2014 | Story

Before the Peninsula and the South Bay turned into the hotbed of innovation we know today, it was a little less, well, cool. It was so lame, in fact, that folk singer Pete Seeger, who died on Monday at 94, recorded a song in 1963 that talked a little smack about Daly City.

The song, "Little Boxes," was written by a friend of Seeger's, Malvina Reynolds. She and her husband lived in Berkeley and were driving down to Santa Cruz. As they passed through the identical boxy houses built in the postwar boom, she composed the song. Seeger recorded it soon after. The song starts out: "Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky." (The song actually introduced ticky tacky to the English language.) From there it goes on to express exactly what you would expect a Berkeley folk singer in the 60s to feel about dry martinis, golf courses, and suburban conformity. It's basically the "Google Bus Song" with a guitar instead of a sampled beat (Correction, 1/29: C.LoPriore, who wrote the Google Bus Song, just emailed us this: "There are no samples in the beat for google bus—we play our own instruments.") Like much of Seeger's work, it's funny and smart—and kind of smugly dickish—all at the same time. (Tom Lehrer called it, "the most sanctimonious song ever written."

But is it an anthem of liberation from social convention or a proto-hipster sneer at the squares for not being hip enough? Or both?

In particular, the song was written to single out the work of prolific developer Henry Doelger, who according to the New York Times, built up to two houses a day during the construction boom to the south of San Francisco. Although from an architectural perspective, the houses leave much to be desired, they have enjoyed a slight increase in stature since the 60s. The Times story quotes a woman who grew up in one of the Doelger houses as defending them on the grounds of democratic equality: "You could hear the man next door snoring. But no one was richer or poorer than us. If they were, we didn't know it, because we all had the same house.''

The ticky tacky boxes didn't just outlive Seeger, they'll likely outlast us all.

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