Grade school earworms: Songs Of the Letter People (1972)

mr m

(Dude had an appetite, apparently.)

I’m susceptible to earworms – those bits of music that get inside of your head and stay there. Usually, they happen when you hear a song, and then the whole tune (or a piece of it) stay on repeat in your mind. In many cases the worse the song is, the more likely it is to stick: in 1997, when the Hampster Dance was one of the first viral sensations on a baby Internet, the song that accompanied it stuck with people for, well, in my case 20 years. (It also taught an entire generation the wrong way to spell “hamster,” sadly.) The hook ended up in dance tracks, but sadly did nothing to help Roger Miller’s “Whistle Stop,” which is what the song is but in sped-up fashion.

For me, though, sometimes the damned things just come out of nowhere, which was the case last night, right before bed, when the song of Mr. M With the Munching Mouth got stuck in the recesses of my brain. If you’re a Gen X-er, now of a certain age, you just started singing along. An explanation is in order.

Back in 1968, around the same time that educators were working to harness the power of television in shows like Sesame Street and Misterogers Neighborhood (which later got a spelling change), a few were wondering if pop music could help young school-aged children to learn their letters and therefore improve their reading skills. Elayne Reiss-Weimann and Rita Friedman came up with the idea for The Letter People, a way to bring letters to life by giving them alliterative personae based on characteristics that began with those letters. Thus Mr. M had a munching mouth, Mr. T had tall teeth (and not a mohawk; that’s a different guy), etc. The vowels were women: Miss O was characterized by her obstinence, which is a word we don’t teach kids anymore and probably should.  Eventually Dr. Alan Pratt, an educational developer, approached the public television station in St. Louis, KETC, about producing a series of short videos to bring the letters to life. You can find most of these on Youtube: they look like a sort of drugged-up Sesame Street with less-polished puppets (see the Mr. M song, and you get the idea). The show spread from St. Louis to a national audience – at least in schools – by 1972, and The Letter People were available for classroom use, with cards, stickers, and an LP called Songs Of the Letter People featuring a tune for each letter of the alphabet.

Tinley Heights School – where I attended kindergarten through second grade –  didn’t have such fancy things as televisions on carts in 1975, so I never saw the videos. We had Califone phonographs in the classrooms, though, and met The Letter People through those songs. I’ll say that it was some damned fine music.  I’d love to talk about the musicians on these songs, but I can’t find anything about them. The LP jacket (I’m working off copies online; I don’t possess an actual copy) does not credit anyone for their performance. If nothing else I’d like to find out who the bass player was, because these tunes have more than a little funk to them. I have the song of Mr. S on my iPod. No, really, it’s that good (although the version I linked has a different vocalist). The horn section has a definite Blood Sweat and Tears vibe to it. I have to wonder how much the repeated listening to these tunes at the age of six left an imprint on my pop music preferences.

The whole album is on Youtube, thanks to user Uncommon Ephemera. I should point out that this is the 1978 update, which is a little different. Miss O is no longer obstinate; she’s now an “optimist.” Miss I isn’t continually itchy, either; she’s an inventor. This was the first “cleaning up” of the program. The later one came in 1996, when it was decided that girls could be consonants, too, and the representation of gender was more evenly divided than the 21-5 ratio we had as kids. All of the characters designated by negative adjectives got a facelift. Mr. H’s “horrible hair” became “happy hair,” while Mr. X, known for being “mixed up and all wrong,” was described as “different.” Oh, and they came for the junk food, too: Mr. C went from being the “cotton candy” guy to having a “colossal cap,” and Mr. D’s “delicious donuts” were replaced by a “dazzling dance.” (I have no idea why Mr. V’s violet velvet vest was changed to a vegetable vest, which makes no damn sense.) Here we can spot a generational gap: if you call a Letter Person one thing and I call it another, we may have gone to school more than a few years apart. My Mr. J with the jumbled junk is your Ms. J with the jingle-jangle jacket. (OK, fine. The whole list is here.)

And yes, I’ll know the letters. What struck me, listening to the songs, is how many of the lyrics I was able to come up with unprompted. I hadn’t heard the Mr. Z song in years, but was singing “coat, hat and dungarees” in time to the music involuntarily. I have to keep my office keys in my door at work, or I’ll lose them – but “zippo, bango, here I come!” flows out without effort.

Epilogue: at the end of 1975, my parents and the school decided to move me from grade 1 to grade 2. I came back from Christmas break in a new classroom as a new student, in a sense, and got tagged with “the smart kid” label all the way until I discovered radio and gave back the extra year (and about 17 more) in college. When I was asked how I felt about switching classes, I said I would like to, but – this is the absolute truth – expressed concern about not being able to finish learning The Letter People. I’d been reading since I was three (and there’s tape to prove it, somewhere), but I wanted to hear the rest of the songs. I was not given the rest of the letter stickers nor allowed to borrow the album.

I never did get to hear all of them – until now. I think I left off at the college fight song-sounding Mr. K tune (about kicking everything except living things). 43 years later, this is how I am going to spend a snow day.


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