In a new monthly series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection.The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews is available online. In this post, Library Assistant Emily Law reminisces on a chance encounter with Rita Abrams'' iconic "Mill Valley" song.
The sounds of Hiroshima City, Japan are, predictably, nothing like those of Mill Valley: the click of chopsticks, the slurp of noodles, the rustle of fabric and catch of breath that accompanies a deep bow. It’s a soundscape of constant noise, laced with moments of unexpected silence. I was never more aware of this difference than as a temporary inhabitant of Japan, deep in a period of homesickness: I stood in the multistory, DIY department store, Tokyu Hands, staring listlessly at a row of neon Klean Kanteens in the camping section, resigned to seeking homegrown comfort from a stainless steel water bottle.
Suddenly, unwittingly, my head started bobbing to a familiar tune. My ears perked up and my heart started racing. Were they playing the “Mill Valley” song?!? That same ditty I grew up singing on the blacktop of Edna Maguire Elementary for every annual Garden Sing? They were. And so on the third floor of a fluorescent-lit department store in the middle of a city of one million people, on an island on the opposite side of the Pacific, I stopped and listened to Rita Abrams’ “Mill Valley” song, on the verge of tears. It felt like a big, warm hug.
If that sounds a little sappy, consider that such a sweet feeling is part of the very song itself. There’s that familiar opening line - “I’m gonna talk about a place that’s got a hold on me” - followed by mention of the mountain, the creeks and everyone’s smiles, and the assertion that Mill Valley “makes you feel as if your life has just begun.” It’s an idyllic tune, but one grounded in truth. In her 1970 interview for the newly-minted Mill Valley Oral History Program, Rita chats with interviewer Leonard Anderson about the recording process, its sudden popularity, and, above all, the qualities of Mill Valley that charmed her and inspired the song. “It’s a very peaceful place,” Rita remarks. “It’s very warm.”
What strikes me most, though, is the widespread appeal and the enduring nature of Rita’s portrayal of Mill Valley. At the time of the interview, Rita tells Leonard, around 50,000 records had already been sold. Beyond numbers are her more personal stories about the letters and calls she received, including a mother whose son, stationed in Vietnam, had heard the song over the Armed Forces radio. “I’ve gotten beautiful letters from all over the country,” Rita shares, her voice calm and radiant as ever. If you hop on YouTube and find the music video for the Mill Valley song (directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola), that same positive voice shines through in the comments section.
But the song doesn’t simply crystallize Mill Valley in a nostalgic moment. Rita’s oral history interview is remarkably prescient and still very relevant. “There are a few who are afraid that [the song] will turn Mill Valley into a tourist trap… but I feel it’s not the kind of a town that can be so easily changed,” she asserts. Even as the audio recording fizzes and crackles and the interviewer references “radio disc jockeys,” there is something immediately recognizable in Rita’s description of Mill Valley, of that crystal clear Christmas morning that she sat in the Depot square and wrote her famous song. She speaks of a town that moves at its own pace and eventually converts everyone, newcomers and oldies alike, to its tune.
- Emily Law
Emily Law is a library assistant in the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library.
We’re fast approaching the 50th anniversary of the "Mill Valley" song. To hear Rita’s advice to future listeners of her oral history interview, read the transcript and listen to the recording here. (Hint: her advice wraps up the interview.)
To capture a glimpse of Mill Valley from Rita’s oral history interview, listen to the excerpts below:
Check back at the History Room's News page for new posts that highlight our growing collection and take a fresh look at interviews that span the centuries!