The Song: The Mamas and The Papas: “Twelve Thirty”

Written by Jody Beth Rosen

We can probably trace the phenomenon of “white flight” back to the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934, which brought the Federal Housing Administration into fruition. The FHA was the first federal agency in American history to give that much of a governmental backing to the private housing enterprise, and with that support came the necessary infrastructure provision to build outside of major cities, where that infrastructure had already been well established.

After the Great Depression, the postwar housing boom of the 1940s and 1950s gave suburban shelter to returning GIs and their growing families. One advertisement of the time shows a young white couple looking off into one of these bright, clean, sprawling landscapes, with the text above them reading “After war can come total living.” The power of marketing cannot be understated – the people who fled the cities were no doubt influenced heavily by the wealth of such imagery – but urban policy, disinvestment, and institutional racism among housing lenders were heavily responsible as well. Cut to: the 1960s.

I look at the children of the Baby Boom, the so-called hippies and those otherwise caught up in the ‘60s cultural moment, as well-meaning but naïve. They embraced the automobile, for example, as a symbol of freedom and fantasy-fulfillment, all the while decrying the corporate culture and advertising mojo that built up the car’s iconic status in the first place.
Their views toward the city often mirrored those of their parents and older siblings, despite cities’ ostensibly left-wing implications. When they lived in Los Angeles, it was high above the urban center, in Laurel Canyon or Topanga or the Santa Monica Mountains. When they read publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog, they learned about pioneer-style self-sufficiency and going “back to the land.” Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” wanted to get us “back to the garden.” Incidentally, the town of Woodstock (not to be confused with the actual festival site) is close to the Catskills, famous for being the vacation community where New York City families of the earlier twentieth century would flock in order to flee their cramped urban apartments in the summertime. Baby boomers were doing the same fleeing, even following the same geographical pattern as their parents.

The Mamas and the Papas, residents of Laurel Canyon like Joni Mitchell, made a whole cottage industry out of songs that thumbed a nose at urban grit, “California Dreamin’” being the obvious one. “Safe in My Garden” prefers the calm of the Canyon to the “hassles with the heat” down in Hollywood, while “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” begins with a plaintive tale of leaving New York City (“everything there was dark and dirty”).

There were similar contributions from countrypolitan, country rock, and Christian rock – all of which occupied a comparative grey area when it came to ‘60s and ‘70s rebellion. Country music, historically, takes a certain pride in NOT sharing the values of the big city, but it was at this time that Nashville was becoming the industry powerhouse it is today, and we also saw country musicians hitting the coasts to try to make it, the way their peers in rock and pop and rhythm and blues had.

In “Hollywood Humpty Dumpty,” an industry-malaise sister song to Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California,” Mac Davis “believed in the fairytale … but the only fairy [he] found in town was the fairy in the Hollywood jail.” In the “city” where Henson Cargill lamented living in “City Boy, Country Born,” children skinny-dip in the Hudson River and mothers feed their kids instant coffee. John Ylvisaker, a rockin’ Christian hipster that Mojo magazine called “the Dylan of the bible scene,” sang that “the city ain’t nothin’ but a place to be shut in and hide from the eyes of the world.”

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