If they can keep a beat and carry a tune, we are more likely to listen, and if they're really good at it, we may never realize we're learning at all. That is the genius of TV's Sesame Street, which for 35 seasons has been giving us the lowdown on letters and numbers and imparting lessons about sharing, acceptance, kindness -- and, before it became an overused buzzword, diversity.
Children, adults, anthropomorphic puppets, blue monsters, yellow birds, celebrities: They all get along on Sesame Street, an obviously urban enclave where everything's A-OK and the air is sweet, never mind that actual cities may be troubled and polluted. What Sesame Street teaches above all is that the world is a welcoming place, that the ways of the gods really are full of providence.
The message gets around. Almost half the population of the United States -- median age 35.3 -- has never known life without Sesame Street. This means you can walk into any bar or day care center in America, start singing, "Who are the people in your neighborhood" and, except for a few grouches, folks will likely join in.
That's another thing about Sesame Street. Even a grump like dirt-loving Oscar the Grouch, who lives in a garbage can and doesn't like anybody, may find himself at home and among friends. That, folks, is diversity.
So let us talk now about Songs From the Street, a three-CD, 63-tune compendium of music from Sesame Street over the years. This is good, often great, music -- unlike children's fare of the "I love you, you love me" ilk, whose cumulative effect on ear and psyche is like that of continual dropping upon a stone.
This explains Oscar's, shall we say, clean little secret: Despite his antisocial proclivities, he is as willing to sing as anybody else. Who wouldn't want to sing this stuff? In terms of numbers, Oscar doesn't hold a candle to kindly Big Bird or genial Ernie, but his voice is credited on four songs here, which puts him two ahead of good-guy Bert. And Oscar's anthem, "I Love Trash," is sung twice, once by Oscar and again by Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
Don't tell the kids, but Oscar and Big Bird are voiced by the same guy, Caroll Spinney. Along with Frank Oz (Grover, Bert, Cookie Monster), Baltimorean Kevin Clash (Elmo) and the late Jim Henson (Ernie, Kermit the Frog), Spinney is a mainstay of the three-disc set.
Preserved here are songs from your childhood, or your children's, or both, songs that will prompt you to sing along or at least smile. Big Bird, misperceiving the alphabet as a word, sings what sounds like "Ab Ca-def-gy, Jickle M-Nop-Quirs-Toov-Wixes" and wonders what it all means. The late, brilliant songwriter Joe Raposo sings "Everybody Sleeps." Cookie Monster belts out his personal philosophy, "C Is for Cookie (That's Good Enough For Me)." Count Von Count sings his counting waltz, "The Batty Bat." Kermit sings "Being Green." Bert sings about imitating his favorite creatures, "Doin' the Pigeon." Ernie and Hoots the Owl sing the wise and fabulous "Put Down the Duckie (If You Want to Play the Saxophone)." And Ernie sings "Rubber Duckie," which was a certified top 40 hit, reaching No. 16 in 1970.
Then there are the celebrity voices, a source of delight and surprise. Billy Joel puts new lyrics to "I Love You Just the Way You Are" and sings to Oscar the Grouch. Cab Calloway lends his patented "Hi-De-Ho" to a song of greeting. Separately, Lena Horne and the late Madeline Kahn sing to Grover. (What has he got, anyway?) Johnny Cash, B. B. King, the Fugees, 'N Sync and the Dixie Chicks all lend their voices to the proceedings.
With the discs arranged more or less chronologically, something a tad antiseptic appears later in the collection.
The best celebrity cuts come early, such as James Taylor's "Jellyman Kelly" and Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard." (Never mind that Simon's words, unaltered, are totally inappropriate.) Both Taylor and Simon have kids singing along with them. In both cases, the youngsters, sometimes offbeat, sometimes off-key, are so enthusiastic, so into the music that the artists are nearly drowned out. It's wonderful. Taylor and Simon appear to understand that and forge ahead.
Meanwhile, Trisha Yearwood, Hootie and the Blowfish, Celine Dion and R.E.M. sing with cast members, but not with any little squirts who might prove distracting. On these more recent celebrity cuts, the kids are nowhere to be heard.
Growing up tends to subtract that full-throttle spontaneity from so many of us. Sesame Street could probably make up a number song to explain it.
At the end of Songs From the Street, I miss it. Maybe it's just me. I miss it in my kids, who are grown, and I miss it in myself. I'm here, and I want to be there.
Songs From the Street - 35 Years of Music (Sony Wonder) ***