A while back I wrote here that, like the American Songbook guru Jonathan Schwartz, I feel pretty confident saying that my musical unconscious was more shaped by Richard Rodgers than any other composer or musician. The Sound of Music alone probably sealed that deal, but Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific are right up there as well, especially the latter two, for which I played in the orchestra for high school or community productions.
The other contender for the title, though, would be Sesame Street‘s Joe Raposo. Over the last week or so I’ve been floored to realize how many of my favorite Sesame Street sketches feature his songs. Not all of my favorites below are Raposo songs, but enough are that I’m giving the guy a big fat shout out. I think my early encounter with his music for Sesame Street (and for The Muppet Show, too) primed my brain for a certain strain of rock and roll that stretches from David Bowie to Destroyer, what I lovingly refer to as Muppet Rock. (More often than not bands with animal names fall in this category.) One of my grand unfinished schemes is to curate a Muppet indie rock opera, starring Gonzo, for WFMU’s listener hour.
But enough of that. For your Monday afternoon music needs, here’s a playlist of my fifteen (well, sixteen) favorite songs from Sesame Street, the ones so deeply burned into my brain there’s no hope of ever shaking them. Most are from 1969-74; I may have picked up some later ones from a 25th anniversary VHS collection I watched with my daughters a decade ago.
In descending order:
15. Grover and Madeline Khan sing “Sing After Me (The Echo Song),” after she rebuffs Grover’s advances. This is a Sam Pottle tune, first aired in 1977:
14. The Count, “Doing the Batty Bat.” I remember this song a little better than the other famous song by the Count, and unfortunately this one doesn’t have such a brilliant parody to go along with it. (Please click that link. You will not regret it.)
Raposo wrote this song in 1985:
13. “Would You Like to Buy an O?” This shady character reminds me of my friend Scotty G out in the LBC. Raposo wrote this; first aired in 1971:
12. “What’s the Name of That Song?” Another Sam Pottle tune (1974):
11. Bert and Ernie sing “I Dance Myself to Sleep.” This is from ’81, which means I probably watched it with younger siblings. I know I watched this with my daughters when they were little but I’m pretty sure I knew it in the 80s too. Classic Bert and Ernie, this one written by Christopher Cerf:
10. “Mah-Na Mah-Na.” I don’t actually remember this version (1969), but it was later a staple on the Muppet Show with different characters. According to Muppet Wiki, it was “written by composer Piero Umiliani for an Italian documentary about life in Sweden, titled Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden, Heaven and Hell).” This was Henson’s first pass at it:
9. “Martian Beauty” (1972) was designed to teach the number 9, so I’ll let it clock in here. Written, sung, and animated by Bud Luckey, who would go on to work for Pixar. Lyrics by Don Hadley:
8. Ernie sings “Rubber Duckie.” I don’t know if I love or hate this song. When I was a kid we had a Sesame Street songbook for the piano, so I also grew up playing and singing this and a few of the others on my list. Written by Jeff Moss, performed by Jim Henson. I was in my mother’s womb when this first aired:
7. “The Alligator King” (1971). Another Bud Luckey song and cartoon w/ Don Hadley lyrics. I’m putting it, appropriately, at number 7, but this was one of my favorite sketches of all as a kid. Still is:
5. “Sing” (1970). Another one that’s as old as I am. Raposo wrote it. It’s been performed any number of ways. I liked the Carpenters’ version when I was a kid. I remember a filmstrip at church when I was a kid that held this up as the “right” kind of music. This version, the bilingual one, is from ’71. Luis was always trying to squeeze Spanish in there.
4. Bert and Ernie, “The Imagination Song” (1972), by Joe Raposo. I love how Bert wakes up:
3. Oscar sings “I Love Trash” (1969). This was my favorite to play on the piano, and I loved the lyrics, too. They gave me license never to throw anything away. Here’s the original version from the first season, when Oscar was still orange:
2. (tie) Two songs about 12: “The Pinball Number Count” and “Ladybug Picnic.” I couldn’t dispense with these all the way back at #12, though. These rank so high simply because once you hear them you can’t shake them for days. Probably the most memorable of all those animated sketches. The first one’s by the Pointer Sisters. Written in ’72 but debuted on SS, apparently, in ’76:
And the other is another Bud Luckey/Don Hadley number (1971):
1. And, finally, Kermit singing “Bein’ Green,” also from the year I was born, and perhaps Raposo’s best song. They were lefties at Sesame Street in the early days, those wacky kids.
You have seen the version Big Bird sang at Jim Henson’s memorial, haven’t you?
What would be on your Best Of list?
Thanks for all this! Also, Van Morrison does one of my favorite versions of “Bein’ Green” on his _Hard Nose the Highway_ LP. Well worth tracking down.
Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by the old AHNY! I didn’t know about Van Morrison’s version. I do like Sinatra’s, though.
Am I right or am I right about Scotty G and the guy selling an O?
Definitely, except Scotty would never try to *sell* anything. He’d be handing ’em out.
Thanks for posting these, Bryan. Like you, I grew up in the rural West and one thing I remember vividly from Sesame Street was that it exposed me to faces I’d never see on the streets of my town in Wyoming. I think part of its cosmopolitan vision was letting white kids from the flyover states see black, hispanic, and fuzzy blue faces, hear their voices, and sing along. I’m usually suspicious of the utopian bent in much cosmopolitan discourse, but I think here it’s dead on. When I was little, John-John was my friend, and knowing and loving John-John helped me resist some of the tacit racism in my surroundings. Henson continued his cosmopolitan vision with Fraggle Rock, a show that was supposed to “save the world.” I’m so glad Sesame Street (even with Elmo) is still around.