FEATURE: "Can You Tell Me How to Get?/How to Get to Sesame Street" Sesame Street at Fifty: The Vital Role of Music on This Iconic Show



“Can You Tell Me How to Get?/How to Get to Sesame Street”

IN THIS PHOTO: Patti Labelle appeared in Season 30 of Sesame Street/PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Termine

Sesame Street at Fifty: The Vital Role of Music on This Iconic Show


ALTHOUGH I am not old enough to remember…


IN THIS PHOTO: Itzhak Perlman playing alongside Telly on the show’s twelfth season/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

the day Sesame Street first aired, I did watch it as a child (even though it has always been more popular in the U.S. compared to the U.K.). On 10th November, 1969, this new, fascinating educational show arrived. The show mixes sketches, live action and puppetry and was created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett. The effectiveness of Sesame Street is the way it delivers its education and instruction. Rather than have a dry and clinical show that looks like those awful documentaries we had to watch at school, Sesame Street utilises humour, fun and a sense of accessibility – all topped off by Jim Henson’s Muppets. The show aired to high praise and viewing figures back in 1969. It has aired on the U.S.’s national public television producer PBS since its inception and HBO started broadcasting Sesame Street from 16th January, 2016 (they broadcast first-run and the same episode comes to PBS months later). Just look at the shows we have on British T.V. that are aimed at children. I am not sure what there was prior to 1969 but it is clear Sesame Street has had a massive affect.

IN THIS PHOTO: Stevie Wonder appeared on Sesame Street with Grover to perform Superstitious and a Sesame Street Jam in 1973/PHOTO CREDIT: Echoes/Redferns

The show proved you could hold the attention of children and did not need to lie or pander. Through colour, song and engaging characters, Sesame Street was an instant hit! The fact that it remains to this day - although it feels and looks quite a bit different – is deeply impressive; it has not become digital and, importantly, not lost its heart and soul. I will talk about the musical aspect of the show but, before then, I want to bring in some information regarding the show’s rise and how it responded to controversy:

According to writer Michael Davis, by the mid-1970s Sesame Street the show had become "an American institution". The cast and crew expanded during this time, with emphasis on the hiring of women crew members and the addition of minorities to the cast.  

The show's success continued into the 1980s. In 1981, when the federal government withdrew its funding, CTW turned to, and expanded, other revenue sources, including its magazine division, book royalties, product licensing, and foreign broadcast income. Sesame Street's curriculum has expanded to include more affective topics such as relationships, ethics, and emotions. Many of the show's storylines were taken from the experiences of its writing staff, cast, and crew, most notably, the 1982 death of Will Lee—who played Mr. Hooper—and the marriage of Luis and Maria in 1988.


IN THIS PHOTO: R.E.M. (Peter Buck, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills) stuck around the set after their Sesame Street taping, one of the show’s songwriters has said/PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop

By the end of the 1990s, Sesame Street faced societal and economic challenges, including changes in viewing habits of young children, competition from other shows, the development of cable television, and a drop in ratings. After the turn of the 21st century, Sesame Street made major structural changes. For example, starting in 2002, its format became more narrative and included ongoing storylines. After its thirtieth anniversary in 1999, due to the popularity of the Muppet Elmo the show also incorporated a popular segment known as "Elmo's World". Upon its fortieth anniversary in 2009, the show received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy at the 36th Daytime Emmy Awards.

In late 2015, in response to "sweeping changes in the media business", and as part of a five-year programming and development deal, premium television service HBO began airing first-run episodes of Sesame Street. Episodes became available on PBS stations and websites nine months after they aired on HBO. The deal allowed Sesame Workshop to produce more episodes, about 35 new episodes per season, compared to the 18 episodes per season it aired previously, and provided the opportunity to create a spinoff series with the Sesame Street Muppets and a new educational series.

Sesame Street was not without its detractors, however. The state commission in Mississippi, where Henson was from, operated the state's PBS member station; in May 1970 it voted to not air Sesame Street because of its "highly [racially] integrated cast of children" which "the commission members felt ... Mississippi was not yet ready for".[128] According to Children and Television, Lesser's account of the development and early years of Sesame Street, there was little criticism of the show in the months following its premiere, but it increased at the end of its first season and beginning of the second season.[129][note 9] Historian Robert W. Morrow speculated that much of the early criticism, which he called "surprisingly intense",[1] stemmed from cultural and historical reasons in regards to, as he put it, "the place of children in American society and the controversies about television's effects on them".[1]

According to Morrow, the "most important" studies finding negative effects of Sesame Street were conducted by educator Herbert A. Sprigle and psychologist Thomas D. Cook during its first two seasons.[130] Social scientist and Head Start founder Urie Bronfenbrenner criticized the show for being too wholesome.[131] Psychologist Leon Eisenberg saw Sesame Street's urban setting as "superficial" and having little to do with the problems confronted by the inner-city child.[132] Head Start director Edward Zigler was probably Sesame Street's most vocal critic in the show's early years.[133]

In spite of their commitment to multiculturalism, the CTW experienced conflicts with the leadership of minority groups, especially Latino groups and feminists, who objected to Sesame Street's depiction of Latinos and women.[134] The CTW took steps to address their objections. By 1971, the CTW hired Hispanic actors, production staff, and researchers, and by the mid-1970s, Morrow reported that "the show included Chicano and Puerto Rican cast members, films about Mexican holidays and foods, and cartoons that taught Spanish words".[135] As The New York Times has stated, creating strong female characters "that make kids laugh, but not...as female stereotypes" has been a challenge for the producers of Sesame Street.[136] According to Morrow, change regarding how women and girls were depicted on Sesame Street occurred slowly.[137] As more female Muppet performers like Camille BonoraFran BrillPam ArcieroCarmen OsbahrStephanie D'AbruzzoJennifer Barnhart, and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph were hired and trained, stronger female characters like Rosita and Abby Cadabby were created.[138][139]”.

Music is why I am here and, forming a big part of its appeal, songs and music are key. Not only does the show have its characters performing tracks but, through the years, Sesame Street has seen some famous musicians drop by to lend a hand. I will include as many as I can hear but from Destiny’s Child through to Paul Simon, there have been numerous memorable musical moments!

Not only do the songs delight children and show that their world can interact with this make-believe street, but adults are given the chance to see artists we know and love step into this wonderful, warm environment. I can imagine the thrill of performing on the show and how much it means to artists. Whether the artist is singing one of their own songs or something instructional, the fun and joy they express is infectious.  I will bring in article from The New York Times from last month that talked about the music on the show and how it comes together. It is not a case of these big artists turning up and singing songs and that is it. There are composers, many different layers and lots of people behind the scenes that create the background music, tracks and feel of the show. I think the musical element of Sesame Street is one of the most powerful as it brings alive numbers, letters and lessons for children.

It also shows that these well-known artists can step into a different environment and still look pretty cool. It is that credibility and sense of cool that means Sesame Street has lasted for fifty years and drawn in generations of children and adults alike. The article from The New York Times is fascinating; I have just brought in a few sections that explores the musical aspect of the show:

Since its inception in 1969, the public television show has redefined what it means to teach children through TV, with music as its resounding voice. Before “Sesame Street,” it wasn’t even clear that you could do that; once the series began, as a radical experiment that joined educational research and social idealism with the lunacy of puppets and the buoyancy of advertising jingles, it proved that kids are very receptive to a grammar lesson wrapped in a song.


IN THIS PHOTO: Chance the Rapper in T Is for Theater with Cookie Monster in 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

Big-name stars lined up to make guest appearances that have become the stuff of legend (Stevie Wonder and Grover; Loretta Lynn and the Count; Smokey Robinson and a marauding letter U). And long before inclusion was a curriculum goal, “Sesame Street” made a point to showcase Afro-Caribbean rhythms, operatic powerhouses, Latin beats, Broadway showstoppers and bebop alongside its notably diverse cast.

Music on “Sesame” functioned in three ways: as backing tracks for animation and film clips (a lonely orangutan looking for a zoo playmate, say); as live performances by well-known guest artists; and as songs for the human actors and Muppets to sing. Raposo, who loved Jelly Roll Morton and Chopin, fado and klezmer, wrote “C is for Cookie” — Henson originally developed Cookie Monster for snack commercials — and “Bein’ Green,” which took on extra poignancy when it was performed by Lena Horne and later Ray Charles, who told puppeteers that he identified with the song’s message about getting comfortable in your own skin, whatever the shade.

And as the “Sesame” universe expanded, it pulled more and more major musical talent into its orbit. The jazz musician Toots Thielemans, who performed with Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, played harmonica on the theme song. Grace Slick provided vocals for animated counting sequences. The guitarist in the first “Sesame” traveling band was Carlos Alomar, who toured with James Brown and then wrote the riff for David Bowie’s “Fame.” Alomar’s replacement, who was 19 or so and showed up at his audition with a Muppet-esque green-tinged Afro, was Nile Rodgers. It was his first real paying gig as an artist.

Bursting into tears is also common. Tracy Chapman needed a break to compose herself during her 1998 performance; Gloria Estefan, who connected with Sonia, Luis and Maria, the show’s trailblazing Latino characters, “cried when she walked in, because she said she was able to see herself and identify with somebody on TV,” said Carmen Osbahr, who performed alongside her as the Spanish-speaking Muppet Rosita.

After a song has lyrics, Sherman and his team score it. Brevity and repetition are key; “Sesame” songs are mostly just verse and chorus, but they’re tuned for catchiness. “You try to make the verse a hook, and then the chorus even more earwormy, if possible,” Sherman said. Demos go to producers and artists for approval and production suggestions, but they must also pass the ultimate litmus test: his two daughters, now 6 and 8.

“They’re very honest, and if they aren’t humming it or singing it, I will usually throw it away and write it again,” he said.

I will not be able to cram every big artist into this feature, but we have seen everyone from Jason Mraz and Elvis Costello step into Sesame Street and provide some musical nourishment. I love the fact that the artists included cover Jazz, Pop; Soul, Rock and pretty much everything between the cracks. If it was all mainstream Pop artists or one particular sound, I do not think the show would reach as far and resonate the way it does. Multiculturalism and diversity is key to Sesame Street and it is wonderful the show embraces characters and performers of all races and backgrounds. Look at other long-running shows like The Simpsons and how they employ music and musicians. Popular culture has ways been at the forefront of Sesame Street’s success and endurance. This feature from NPR goes into more detail:

 “From 1969 to 2019, the music of Sesame Street has aimed to educate young audiences. Sesame Street's central educational goal has held steady over the years, but its sound has not. What Sherman describes as a vaudeville-esque sound in the earliest seasons of the 1960s and '70s shifted into genres more contemporary to the decades that followed. In recent seasons, guest stars like Nick Jonas and will.i.am have performed Sesame Street originals on the show.

"I think that's what Sesame Street has done successfully, is sort of, at least sonically, change with the times," Sherman says of the show's continuously evolving musical style. To keep educating viewers, the music of the show has to adapt to their changing taste of the audience. "I think Rosemarie would tell you that our biggest thing is about making sure, at least from a song standpoint, that the kids can remember what we're trying to teach," he says.


PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

Truglio does, indeed, echo this point. When she hears a proposed song for the show, she listens carefully for potential auditory appeal to children. "It's got to be appealing and engaging, because without appeal and engagement, we can't teach," she says. "So we are going to be listening for that, and making sure that it's relevant.

Sherman and Truglio take such measures of the show's ability to connect with young viewers through music very seriously. If the basic sound of the music appeals to children watching the program, then the lyrics are much more likely to impart the valuable lessons they carry.

"Our mission on Sesame Street is to create content to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder," Truglio says. "It's a huge responsibility because we want to make sure that we assess later and we see learning impact".

As a music journalist and someone who grew up around so many terrific artists, I think Sesame Street is just as informative and important as any streaming service and current form of marketing; so in tune with modern culture as it is! That may sound extreme, but the face of music is changing and how we digest it now is very different to how children would have experienced music back when Sesame Street started. I think the show will always be essential because it brings music to life in a way other shows and formats cannot. I wanted to bring in this article from Billboard that collected together some very important people; they discussed their role and connection with Sesame Street:

Christopher Cerf, editor-in-chief of books, records, and toys division, Children’s Television Workshop; (1970-1979); composer-songwriter (1973-1999) 
Joe Raposo, the first musical director, decided very early there would not be one music style. We wanted kids to hear all different music: R&B, opera, show tunes, folk, world music.

Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vp, curriculum and content for Sesame Workshop
From the beginning, Sesame was innovative for using music to teach curriculum goals. “C Is for Cookie"? That's a literacy moment.


IN THIS PHOTO: NSYNC on Season 31 of Sesame Street/PHOTO CREDIT: Jen Lombardo

Caroll Spinney, Big Bird; Oscar The Grouch

I got the job when I was 35. I didn’t think of myself as a singer, but Jim Henson expected I would sing, so I didn’t get all fussy about it. I can carry a tune.

Sonia Manzano, Maria (1971-2015) 

Everybody had to sing on the show.

Bob McGrath, Bob

As soon as I started singing on Sesame Street, I got calls from symphonies to do family pops concerts. It's a great gig when they say, “Please welcome Big Bird's best buddy, Bob!” and you get a standing ovation from the introduction.


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson on the Sesame Street Christmas special with Oscar the Grouch on 24th October, 1978/PHOTO CREDIT: Louis Myrie/Contour by Getty Image


When I first heard “Rubber Duckie” [written by head writer Jeff Moss], I could see a nightclub singer doing that song. It had double-entendres. It wasn’t treacly.

John Carter CashProducer; Son of Johnny Cash

When I was a boy in the '70s, I watched Sesame Street every day, twice a day. The first time my dad was on Sesame Street [in 1973], I was 3 and very confused on set when Big Bird took off his head. Then I looked up and saw Mr. Snuffleupagus hanging from the ceiling. It was shocking.

Ruth Pointer, The Pointer Sisters

When we got to the studio and they presented us with “Pinball Number Count” [the theme to a recurring counting segment], we looked at each other: “Are you kidding?” That song was really difficult! Gospel, jazz — we had to sing it in parts. I don’t know if we would have been prepared if we hadn’t grown up singing in the church.


When Lena Horne was on [in 1976], she sang "Bein’ Green" with Kermit. I remember being taken aback: Jim Henson played Kermit so dramatically — so sadly — that a puppet really complimented her profundity.

Norman Stiles, Writer, head writer, lyricist (1970-1999)

In 1978 we did Sesame Street Fever, a disco LP in response to Saturday Night Fever. The cover is Grover in a white John Travolta suit”.

There are numerous great features that rank the musical guests and show that, through the years, there have been so many memorable turns! I want to bring in a couple more before wrapping things up but, as Sesame Street prepares for its fiftieth anniversary in November, I think a lot of media sources should pay tribute. There is no telling just how far the show has reached in terms of education the generations and bringing some fantastic music to smiling faces. From the amazing guests who have joined the cast to the incredible background music, so many great people have helped score this truly amazing show. Jack White has lent his chops and we have seen Pentatonix drop by to count and sing with the gang! I want to return to the feature from The New York Times and underline one important thing: how one cannot escape the fun and pleasure of being on the Sesame Street set! Guests feel that infectiousness:

When R.E.M. came on to do “Happy Furry Monsters,” a takeoff on their hit “Shiny Happy People,” they hung around the set all day, adding jokes to their number and watching other segments being produced, said Cerf. “That happened all the time,” the songwriter said. “I was there when Melissa Etheridge came, and she wanted to sit in Big Bird’s nest before she left.

Harry Styles, the One Direction star, also “had to meet Big Bird,” said Bill Sherman, the show’s music director. “And Will.i.am needed to talk to Grover.”

Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chance the Rapper is an Oscar guy. “I always just felt like he was misunderstood,” he said. When he came on to do a theatrical scene with Cookie and Elmo, he also invented a bit for himself and Oscar”.

What is the future of the show? Well, this year is a very special one for Sesame Street. It is clear Sesame Street’s magic and importance cannot be understated:

“(NEW YORK, NY, February 4, 2019): It all began in 1969 on a street where colorful Muppets and humans lived—and learned—side by side.  Today, 50 years later, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, announced a yearlong anniversary celebration to mark the occasion. Throughout 2019, Sesame Workshop will bring people together around the timeless lessons that Sesame Street has always taught:  everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, is equally deserving of respect, opportunity—and joy.

Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty, Sesame Street was created to answer a simple question: could television be used to level the playing field and help prepare less advantaged children for school? The founders tapped educational advisors and researchers, entertainers and television producers, and other visionaries to create what became the longest-running children’s show in American television history.  Ever since, Sesame Street has helped children around the world to learn, feel included and respect others. With a curriculum that evolves to meet the needs of every new generation, it is now a force for good in over 70 languages and 150 countries.


IN THIS PHOTO: The Sesame Street cast around the iconic street sign in 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

“This is a remarkable milestone for kids, for education and for television. Sesame Street has now brought the life-changing benefits of early learning to children around the globe for 50 years,” said Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s Chief Executive Officer. “Our mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder knows no geographic boundaries. We’re everywhere families are and we never stop innovating and growing. That’s what keeps us timeless.”

The anniversary will bring people together through social impact initiatives, digital campaigns, and community events that reflect Sesame Street’s unifying messages. Throughout 2019, fans and families around the world can join their favorite furry friends in celebrating Sesame Street’s past, present, and future, with:

“We’re often asked what Sesame Street’s legacy will be,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, Co-Founder. “To me, a legacy is when something’s over…and this isn’t over.”


IN THIS PHOTO: Sesame Street's Season 1 cast/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

“Sesame Street had a profound impact on children’s media, setting a template that the industry has followed for generations,” said Lloyd Morrisett, Co-founder. “Fifty years later, Sesame Workshop continues to deliver on its mission every day, across multiple platforms, on six continents. We started as an experiment - and it worked”.

It seems that there are many more years (maybe decades) left in Sesame Street. There is no real reason it would need to be cancelled: it is a hugely effective show that succeeds because of its formula and does not need to alter in these days of streaming and impatient T.V. studios. I wonder which musicians will be the next to take a trip to that very special place. I guess we all have a list of people we’d like to see on it – St. Vincent seems like she’d fit in easily! –, but there is plenty of time to satisfy our curiosity. Until then, let’s mark the fiftieth anniversary of Sesame Street (the official birthday is on 10th November) and provide our thanks. There are many reasons the show endures, seduces and will never go away – the musical diversity and memorability is a big reason. As I prepare to depart and spend some time on YouTube watching Sesame Street videos, it is amazing to think how many people around the world have…

MADE Sesame Street their home.