Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The power of educational television

40 years ago today, Sesame Street debuted, armed with the crazy notion that television could educate kids. All those years ago who'd'a thunk that it was more than just a wild idea and would go on to have words like "institution" attached to it.

I've always felt that a lot of the significant education we get doesn't come when we're sitting at the desk listening to teachers. It comes from the in-between stuff: the revelations you have while reading books; conversations with fellow students, who offer a greater perspective on how people comprehend different things; off-the-cuff advice from teachers or instructors. In other words, when you don't think you're learning that is often when you can pick up more things.

So one weekday morning in 1971, I sat down to watch Sesame Street and the show opened with a blind keyboard player singing through something that made his voice all garbled:

1-2-3 Sesame Streeeeeeeeeet
A-B-C Sesame Streeeeeeeet

He did the numbers and letters and his three back-up singers did the other part.

For years I wondered if I was just piecing this together in my mind or if Stevie Wonder really did sing that song. A few years ago, my thoughts were confirmed with the Sesame Street box set Songs from the Street came out. Stevie did sing that song and he was on the first disc. And it was exactly how I remembered it.

Then a few months ago I was routing around youtube and found this:

Go ahead - look at it. Now. It's 6:47, just so you know.

Now you don't put something that heavy, that badass on a kids tv show without realizing that it's going to leave an impression on them. First of all, that song is one of the bad-assest songs ever written - with that killer clavinet riff and the funky bassline/countermelody. But kids aren't going to know what a clavinet is. They're just going to get caught up in the beat and Stevie's head bob. Because he's into it. All those guys look cool, even the pudgy trumpet player and the geeky bass player.

And its effect might not be one where it changes lives. It just makes you think - about music and about race and how everything seems really cool. I completely forgot about the clip, to be honest, until I stumbled across it. Suddenly it all came back to me and I remembered it and it made me wonder if it's been with me, in the back of my head for all these years.
The arrangement is great. Note that he changes the line in the second verse to reference Sesame Street, and also gives a shout-out to Cookie Monster before the break in the middle. (There's also some screaming off mike early in the song.) Then just when you think they're done, after playing that killer closing riff, he makes the band go back into the main vamp again. And dig those Fender stacks - right on Sesame Street.
So as the show marks the big 4-0 I want to thank everyone involved for what they've done to make me the way I am. Which is a lot. (I didn't even go into the vaudeville aspect of most of the skits!)

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