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Sing a Song

'Sesame Street' transcends nostalgia

By Sara Bir

If you're nearing your mid-30s and are all sweaty in the palms because of it, just remember that you are probably younger than Big Bird. Sesame Street is in the midst of its 35th anniversary, which means that it's time for all sorts of self-congratulatory fanfare from its creator, Children's Television Workshop. Thus we have on our hands the 63-song boxed retrospective of Sesame Street musical numbers, Songs from the Street: 35 Years of Music. I don't have kids, but if I did, I would not buy this for them. I'd buy it for me--which I did, and I've been continuously elated because of it.

From its relatively hipster-neutral packaging and format, it's difficult to tell if Songs from the Street is aimed at adults craving nostalgia--especially in this age of revived flare pants, old-school Puma sneakers and fitted cap-sleeve T-shirts embroidered with rainbows--or at parents who want something besides the Wiggles to play for their youngsters. The hard fact is that no matter what age you are, "'C' is for Cookie" is a better song than anything Norah Jones, the Strokes or Outkast will ever produce.

Whatever the case, Songs from the Street allows the listener to hear some wonderful songs in the context of well-crafted music for grown-ups rather than educational music for kids. I purchased this set expecting to plunder some novelty fodder for mix tapes, only to find that the majority of all three CDs (which are arranged in semichronological order) merit listening to from beginning to end. On a busy Saturday, I played Songs from the Street at the retail store where I work (shhh, don't tell ASCAP), and not one customer made a comment. That may be a backhanded compliment, but you can bet that if we played Barney songs we would have collected a great deal of vocal dissent.

We can credit the bulk of Sesame Street's mature appeal to three forces: Jim Henson (whose Muppets have always adhered to a wry, vaudevillian sense of humor); composer Joe Raposo ("Bein' Green," "Sing"); and former Captain Kangaroo screenwriter Jeff Moss ("Rubber Duckie," "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon").

Listening to these songs, you can tell that they were made with their creators' own amusement and pleasure in mind as much as their underage audience's. Lena Horne crooning Raposo's "How Do You Do?" to a timid Grover is sweet and intimate, and Oscar the Grouch's duet with Johnny Cash on the Moss-penned "Nasty Dan" (who eats nails for lunch and never took a bath) would fit well on the set list of any of Cash's prison concerts.

The other musical genius stroke of Sesame Street was to recruit such gifted famous folks and take full advantage of their creativity.

This shit rocks.

There's a groovy dance track for example, circa 1972, wherein Stevie Wonder counts into a Talkbox against a reggae-steeped backbeat, and a Paul Simon performance of "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" that's spiced up with an ineffably spastic little girl's claps and ad-libs about birds and dancing--two things that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual subject of "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," but who cares when you hear the offhandedly inspired result.

And remember the cartoon segment of the psychedelic pinball game with all of the numbers flashing and this amazingly funky song with women singing to 12 ("Pinball Number Count")? That, my friends, is the Pointer Sisters. Who knew?

Disc three features some more contemporary folks, including R.E.M. singing "Shiny Furry Monsters" with a Kate Pierson look-alike Muppet, and Melissa Etheridge bleating out a version of her "Like the Way I Do" revamped to address the letter u. Celine Dion's number we can do without, though I guess it's better to have Ms. Canadian Vegas on a kids' show than, say, Ol' Dirty Bastard. One ol' dirty bastard, Steven Tyler, does contribute a cringe-inducing version of "I Love Trash" (why not Christina Aguilera?--she's trashy).

Even without its famous-person-bingo-fun, Songs from the Street scores merit not from shallow pop-culture points but from music that's good to listen to, and stuff that's as tightly written as any Lennon-McCartney tune, solidifying the show's role as a generator of pop standards and proving that Sesame Street has assumed the place of classic-movie musicals and Broadway shows as a source of songs that everyone knows.

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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