I recently went to my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. My cousin is a funny, creative and interesting young man. He is fascinated with The Simpsons television show, and anything having to do with comics or illustration.
At many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, guests are treated to a photographic montage of the young person’s life. We see photos of them, their families and friends, and we hear music that is important to them. I shouldn’t have been surprised when, at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, the famous Sesame Street ear worm “Mahna Mahna” was played. Catchy riff aside, I had forgotten what a wonderfully imaginative song it is, and how it deserves a place on any list of the great music of the 20th century.
To only say that “Mahna Mahna” is part of the Sesame Street history would be misleading, “Mahna Mahna” is how this landmark children’s television show actually began, and it serves as a perfect precursor and indicator of what made the show so great.
“Mahna Mahna” was actually written as for the soundtrack 1968 pseudo documentary about sexual behavior in Sweden. A Sesame Street producer heard the song once it began to get a little radio play, and realized it would be perfect for the puppet based television show they were developing in the states. It was part of the very first season of Sesame Street, it was performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, and it was included in the premiere of the Muppet Show in 1976.
Since its premiere in 1969, Sesame Street has entertained and educated kids. It connects with them by using colorful puppets and friendly, accessible people singing songs that teach about numbers, the ABC’s and how to be nice and welcoming to the different people in your neighborhood. The songs give the kids new ways to think, and new ways to look at the world around them.
Though there is not even a single word in the entire song, “Mahna Mahna” could not have been a better way to begin what would become a decades long tradition of educating with imagination and art. The song is a reflection on relationships and making yourself heard. It is about collaboration and creativity.
We first hear a jaunty instrumental tune that we can immediately place alongside the theme to That Girl, or “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck quartet. We then hear the nonsense words “mahna mahna” sung under a gruff-voicd breath, almost like a secret. Then we hear a chorus of higher pitched voices singing, in perfect harmony “dee, dee-de-dee dee.” The gruff voice says again “mahna mahna.” The harmony voices answer back “ba di-di-dee.” Back and forth, each part repeats. A whole verse worth of this nonsense conversation, a gruff voice countered with melodic voices. They are talking, they are negotiating, they are bartering.
And then, almost as if they are talking and ruminating to themself, the gruff voice scats, only with a light backing cymbal percussion. The voice gets quiet. The voice is reflecting. Unsure of himself. We then hear the voice realize it is right on target, and again with confidence and volume we hear “mahna mahna” answered again by the chorus of harmonic voices.
Then the gruff voice attempts to sing. There is a little bit of tremolo in the voice as it stretches to reach notes both high and low. We can hear the joy in the voice, and then it pauses for a moment. It is thinking, wondering where to go next. And then we hear the harmonies again.
This pattern repeats. Scatting gruff voice followed by harmonious singing voices. As wonderful and as fun as this song is to just listen to, and it is, nothing on Sesame Street was ever created just to listen to, and watching the clip of the song brings to life all its glorious color, creativity and story.
In this clip from The Muppet Show in 1976, the harmony voice puppets look like alien cows. The gruff voice looks like someone who was mistakenly left behind on Max Yasgur’s farm when the Woodstock concert came to an end.
The alien cows seem happy enough, and a little surprised and in awe when Woodstock man arrives and begins to sing the nonsense lyrics. The cows look at each other, and they stare out in wonder every time Woodstock man begins to sing. They look at each other, they try to dissuade him from interrupting their song. He doesn’t care. They all finally some agreement in the fact that the scatting does not really fit in with the singing, but they keep trying to make it work.
Yes, the song is more funny than it is educational, but imagine being a three year old child, slowly realizing that a song can be anything. Any sound can be a song, and anyone can sing that song. Strange partnerships can be made, and everyone can enjoy themselves. This is education in a pure and joyous form.
Mahna Mahna…suddenly, it all makes sense.
Written by Piero Umillani
Performed by Two Cows and a Stranded Hippie on Sesame Street
Released September 4, 1968