For the generation who grew up on Free to Be ... You and Me, the memories remain vivid.

In Toronto, Chana Rothman alternated Free to Be with her parents' Simon & Garfunkel and Carole King. "It felt like it was the voice of a movement, and it felt like the movement could include me."

In Philadelphia, Robin Packel got the album just as she was entering adolescence. "That and my mom's Ms. Magazine - that message of 'Be who you are, and don't be concerned about gender roles' - that was all part of developing my thinking."

And in Rockville, Md., it was the soundtrack of Ilana Trachtman's childhood.

"It defined my values as a kid, and really for everyone else I knew," said Trachtman, now 43, of Center City. "Even today, it's one of those touchstones. It's like a shibboleth that, if you mention it to people of a certain age who grew up . . . with liberal, middle-class parents, it sparks delight."

It's been just over 40 years since actress and activist Marlo Thomas gathered her superstar friends, from Alan Alda to Diana Ross, and created Free to Be . . . You and Me, the seminal album, book, and television special that introduced then-revolutionary ideas about feminism and gender to a generation of children.

On Wednesday, Thomas' coproducer, Carole Hart, and cultural historian Lori Rotskoff, coeditor of When We Were Free to Be, an anthology about the franchise, will mark that anniversary with an evening of music, film and discussion about Free to Be . . . and its enduring legacy. The event was organized by Trachtman, of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, and by Temple University's Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, which is hosting the event as part of a series called "Sounds Jewish."

While the album isn't Jewish, per se, in hindsight it held special resonance for many Jewish families.

'Stamp of American-ness'

"It's an album that opened up questions of multiculturalism," said Lila Corwin Berman, 38, an event panelist and Temple history professor who grew up listening to the album. "There had been, for many decades, a reluctance on Jews' parts to be public about being different. The goal had been to fit in. Then there was a shift in the '60s, a white ethnic revival tied in with the civil rights movement - and these groups were coming forward and saying, 'To be American isn't just to be the same.' This album is all about enshrining difference with a stamp of American-ness."

The impetus for the album came when Thomas, coming off the starring role in the sitcom That Girl, began looking for books to read to her young niece. Everything she found boxed girls and boys into the same limited roles.

She connected with editors at Ms. Magazine, and tapped into what was then called the "nonsexist child-rearing movement," Rotskoff said, with a goal of "influencing children to challenge assumptions around gender roles."

Through her connections, she found contributors like Hart, who had recently helped create Sesame Street; Shel Silverstein; and Carl Reiner. But getting industry support was more difficult.

"It was challenging to get a label to take it on, even given the fact that we had these extraordinary stars," Hart recalled. "All the major labels turned us down - and, in fact, one of them said, 'Why would I want to put out an album done by a bunch of dykes?' "

Still, less than nine months after Thomas first contacted Ms. Magazine, the album was released by independent Bell Records in 1972, and became a cultural phenomenon. So did the TV special in 1974.

They featured Carol Channing railing against the tyranny of cleaning supplies, former New York Giant Rosey Grier professing "It's all right to cry," and Michael Jackson promoting self-acceptance. There was a song about how both fathers and mothers can work outside the home ("Some mommies are ranchers/ or poetry-makers/ or doctors or teachers/ or cleaners or bakers . . ."), and a story about a princess for whom happily ever after means traveling the world's cities independently.

"The labor market was changing, an increasing number of mothers with young children were working outside the home, and children needed a song to reflect that shift," Rotskoff said. "This was especially in reaction to some of the changes that had happened in the 1950s after World War II, when there was an increase in homemaking and a romanticization of domesticity for women."

There also was controversy: ABC executives pushed to remove from the TV special a song, "William's Doll," for fear it would encourage homosexuality. They also initially rejected "Parents Are People," as sung by Thomas and Harry Belafonte while pushing baby carriages side by side - looking like an interracial couple.

But Thomas stood her ground, and the special won an Emmy.

Since, there have been books, CDs, DVDs, and new generations of fans.

Chana Rothman, 39, of Mount Airy, a singer-songwriter, music educator, and mother of two, was raised on Free to Be.

In many ways, it remains ahead of the curve. When Rothman sought out songs dealing with gender issues for her own young children and her students, the only ones she could find were these classics. Rothman, who will perform at the Wednesday event, is preparing to release an album, Rainbow Train, that she hopes can serve these same needs for today's kids.

"I set out to make an album that was completely standing on the shoulders of Free to Be . . . You and Me - but bringing in the sounds people are listening to today: hip-hop, Latin, jazz, reggae," she said.

She also wants to update the conversation on bullying and gender nonconformity that Free to Be started - but that can, at times, feel outdated. (Consider the sketch in which Mel Brooks and Thomas voice newborn babies trying to figure out who is a boy and who a girl - until a nurse changes their diapers and ends the mystery. "Even though that felt really liberatory in the '70s," Corwin Berman said, "gender identity is more than one's sexual organs.")

'A nurturing type'

Jason Didner, of Montclair, N.J., who plays children's music with his band, the Jungle Gym Jam, is about to release a cover of "Free to Be . . ." with singer Suzi Shelton.

Growing up, he said, the album "really set the tone for me, that one day when I was going to have kids, that I could be a nurturing type of dad and not have to worry about the stigma. That has really become true, because I'm a dad to a 3-year-old girl, and if she wants me to paint her nails pink, I paint her nails pink. No one gets to decide what manhood is for me."

But, he also wanted to revisit the album as a reminder that, despite the popularity of Free to Be, many of its ideals haven't yet been fulfilled.

For example, Rotskoff noted, more than 40 years after  "William's Doll," "We still don't often see boys being encouraged to push toy strollers the way girls do." Boys' and girls' toys remain color-coded.

Hart said she wishes the album was obsolete. But, she added, "in a lot of ways, it's as necessary as it has ever been."

Coming Wednesday

Free to Be may be in its 40s, but its message is hardly middle-aged. One Inquirer editor talks about the impact of her favorite childhood album.

If you have a favorite Free to Be song or story, please tell us about it in 100 words or less at crubin@phillynews.com; include your name, age, and town. We will publish some responses in this week's

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Free to Be at 40, 7 p.m. Wednesday, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St.

Tickets: 215-204-9553; www.cla.temple.edu/feinsteincenter