November 10, 1969 was the premiere of Sesame Street. This show – back when we had a separate television history course in our program – is one that I spend considerable time on. The impact of Sesame Street on generations of young children, preparing them to read, to go to school, to learn how to deal with serious issues like death and terrorism, cannot be truly measured properly. I’m happy to point you to a variety of other sources for deeper reading about the show; Michael Davis’ Street Gang is worthwhile and one that I have had students read as well.
I want to talk about the music.
Even if we limit the discussion to chart hits, which we do around here, we can’t leave out Sesame Street. Jim Henson, under the name of Ernie (one of the many Muppets he voiced), hit #16 in 1970 with “Rubber Duckie.” Among the kiddie 45s that were around the house for my use (and among the ones that went missing at some point) were the original Sesame Street singles. These 45s, in cardboard sleeves, featured songs from the television program for entertaining kids when the show wasn’t on in a world before on-demand programming. Of the singles, I think my favorite was “I Love Trash.” Deep down I am an Oscar fan; maybe we relate on some level. But other Muppets got singles in the collection: Cookie Monster, one of the coolest characters ever created, gave us “C Is For Cookie.” Big Bird’s attempt to pronounce the alphabet in “ABC-DEF-GHI” will stick in your head for days. (I’m also unsure as to exactly when Big Bird’s head got bigger; I think it was by Season 2, around the same time Oscar became green.)
If we venture outside the singles, there were other pieces of music that stand out. Bob McGrath did a variety of songs on the show as well as albums that I recall being in our grade school classrooms. I had the Bert’s Blockbusters LP (because of course I did!) and could sing along with the pigeon song and the National Association of W Lovers. (This wasn’t brought out during the second Bush presidency and I think an opportunity was missed.) Of course, if we REALLY want to drive home the point about how good the songs were on the show, we need only point to Henson (again, this time as Kermit the Frog) singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” in which we get kids and their parents thinking more than a little bit about race relations. (This should be brought out, and again an opportunity is missed.)
Why did the music on the show click so well? That’s largely the work of Joe Raposo. Most of what I’ve talked about so far – including the iconic theme song for the show – was written by Raposo. (In 1992 the show’s theme got the house music treatment from Smart E’s, and it’s glorious. It also went to #2 in the UK.) He was working in musical theater and jazz (among his credits: supervising and arranging the music for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) when Jim Henson approached him about contributing music for the program. Not only did Raposo come up with the winning singles, he also contributed pieces that ran in the shorts throughout the program. Sesame Street was – if you’ve never thought about it – a series of short pieces between skits. The films and animations haunt the memory, if you’re of a certain age. Give me a few notes to one of them and I’ll provide the rest. I’ve been threatening to set my phone’s ringtone to the music Raposo put behind film of a giant panda for years, and I may yet do so. Oh – and before I forget – the biggest hit of all the Sesame Street songs? That’s gotta be “Sing (Sing a Song),” which went on to become a #3 hit for The Carpenters. Joe Raposo wrote that, too.
Music ran throughout the show and made the clips memorable. Every year I’m drawn in to be a part of a commencement ceremony, and I am disappointed that there is no octopus. (For years I have been trying to solve a mystery: there’s another version of “Pomp and Circumstance” where they just sing food. It starts “Peanut butter and jell-lee….” Was that The Electric Company or Sesame Street? I can’t find the clip anywhere.) If you’re over 40, odds are good that you can fill in the lyrics to “The King of 8.” (Likewise, if you are of that age, and I tell you that a red ball is coming down a track, can you hum the weird electronica? Let’s see.) And, the other “garbage song” from the show ended up on my iPod. No, really. “Where the Garbage Goes” is damned catchy. (I should have warned you: I am into this show.)
But the roster of well-known musical acts that contributed to Sesame Street is where we see what the true success of the show was: find a way to entertain the grown-ups who are sitting there with the kids. I’ve long argued that this is where Barney the Dinosaur and others of its ilk failed: no adult could sit through that. There were sketches on Sesame Street that were just too complicated for kids to completely understand except that there were recognizable puppets. (As an example: tell me what the hell is going on here in the “Alphabet Chat” sketch.) Kids didn’t know who Grace Slick was, but their parents did, and when she turned up providing the voice that taught the kids numbers, the parents got it. (I’m far, far more partial to the “jazzy spies” song than the later Pointer Sisters’ pinball machine song, but your mileage may vary. It’s largely because the backing track kicks ass, and I’m willing to fight about it.)
Celebrities have lined up over the years simply to sing the alphabet. My introduction to Lena Horne was from this show. I knew who Ray Charles was when I became a little older, but I didn’t have this single in my collection. (I wonder now if those kids had any idea who they were singing with.) Singers began wanting to take part in other sketches as well: Johnny Cash would like to sing with Oscar? Done. Elvis Costello has an idea to incorporate Elmo? Sure. Feist is willing to incorporate monsters into their hit? Why not? Stevie Wonder wants to be on the whole episode? Damn right. (This may be one of the better versions of “Superstition” out there.) Katy Perry wants to sing with Elmo? OK, parents drew the line here, but – well, you decide. I could keep going with this list, but I think you get the idea: this is a show that performers from all varieties of music wanted to be a part of.
I could dive a lot deeper into this show on a number of levels. Musically, others have: there’s a CD box called Songs From the Street that puts together some of the most memorable musical performances. But I think there’s one thing we can all agree on, and that’s that for the past fifty years, Sesame Street has been a vital part of not only television history but the popular music canon as well. And for that, I for one am pretty thankful.