For my 35th birthday, my sister gave me a CD of Muppet Silly Songs, a favorite of ours when we were kids. It’s been out of print for years and last time I checked wasn’t even available on the web, legally or not. We unearthed the vinyl at our mom and stepfather’s place when we were there over Mother’s Day, and Molly converted it to digital with the help of our friend Leo.
Muppet Silly Songs came out in 1984. I was in fourth grade. I think my dad got it for us. He had us on Wednesday nights, when the Muppet Show was on, and I associate the Muppets with him. It must have been weird originally to have him living in his own apartment a few blocks away from us rather than under the same roof, but by fourth grade it had been a few years and the whole thing felt normal. The next year Dad met my stepmother and moved to Roosevelt Island, still in NYC but a much longer and more complicated trip than a walk down 181st street. So Muppet Silly Songs represents the end stage of a happy time for me. A lot of complex feelings there.
I’m at the age where if I were going to be a rock star, it would have happened a while ago. My musician contemporaries are dealing with the end of the rock star years in different ways. Some continue to rock, though maybe on a schedule limited by careers and families. Some move into teaching or music therapy or just set the whole enterprise regretfully aside. And some move into making music for kids. Kimberly West and Daniel Cole, two singers I used to play lead guitar for, have reinvented themselves as a kids’ group called the Rock Doves. It’s an idea that appeals to me. I have some ideas for songs about math and science aimed at geeky kids like myself in the pipeline.
What makes for good kids’ music? First and foremost it has to be good music, period. As a kid, I couldn’t have explained to you why I liked Michael Jackson or the Beatles, but I knew that there was something truer and more important about their music than other stuff I was hearing. The Muppet people know from good music. Behind their silly delivery they had strong tunes with catchy melodies. They drew on a wide palette, centering on showtunes but bringing in everything from jazz to country.
I can see the roots of a lot of my present interests in Muppet Silly Songs. Both “The Rhyming Song” and “I’m My Own Grandpa” are strongly recursive. In “The Rhyming Song” the joke is simple: the song doesn’t rhyme, at all.
“I’m My Own Grandpa” is a more ambitious joke, a logical pretzel knot that wouldn’t be out of place in Gödel, Escher, Bach.
The album also includes Kermit The Frog’s rendition of “Lydia The Tattooed Lady.” The Muppet Wiki informs me that it was written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (who also wrote the songs in The Wizard Of Oz) for the Marx Brothers movie At The Circus. Kermit’s version is less saucy.
As a kid I had no idea what the lyrics were talking about, I just liked the complex rhymes. (I guess it warmed me up for the brainy hip-hop I like now.) Shortly after graduating from college I moved back to New York City. I went to a party at my older stepbrother’s place in the Meatpacking District, and then on my way home roamed around the West Village. It was summer, a warm night, people were out. A guy in a bunny suit rode by on an enormous tricycle singing “Lydia The Tattooed Lady” and I felt that weird mixture of adult sophistication and childishness that I feel often in NYC. It’s the way I feel now, listening to Muppet Silly Songs. Not a comfortable feeling, but one I like.