It’s a great holiday season for Muppet/Henson fans. The original soundtrack for Jim Henson’s brilliant and much beloved Christmas TV special Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas has finally been officially released! Songwriter and 70’s variety show raconteur Paul Williams’ spellbinding songs for this 1977 TV special are now available to stream on iTunes or Spotify.  You can also buy a CD (you know, for your parents) and soon you’ll be able to get it on vinyl (you know, for your hipster little sister). I, for one, am shocked that there hasn’t been an official release until now and this one from Varèse Sarabande and The Jim Henson Company is a highly satisfying release. All the songs you remember are here, including some excellent instrumental underscores and even a bonus unreleased song called “Born in a Trunk” (more on it later).

It’s an interesting exercise to listen to this soundtrack removed from the TV special that it was created for. One aspect that sticks out is how much Williams’ music laid the template for the entire rustic and classic ragtime-piano sound that perennially followed the Henson and Muppet aesthetic post-Emmet Otter. This, of course, has to do with the fact that Henson hired Williams to pen the songs for The Muppet Movie shortly after his work on Emmet Otter and the rest was history. One only needs to listen to select Brett Mackenzie-composed tracks from both The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted to hear similar instrumentation and motifs used in his scores to the songs found here.

 

And therein lies the brilliance of this soundtrack: Williams was able to distill Henson’s genteel and creative Mississippi upbringing into a sort of musical language that is as much part of The Muppet’s magic as Henson’s original spark of vision, Don Salin’s brilliant designs or Frank Oz’s iconic performances. It really did take a village of brilliant creatives to craft our collective childhoods, and Williams was an essential and sometimes unsung member of that village.

(L-R, Kenny Ascher [Williams’ Muppet Movie writing partner], Jim Henson and Paul Williams working on the music for The Muppet Movie)

Also notable on this soundtrack is the restrained and beautiful vocal work of Jerry Nelson, voicing the gentle Emmet Otter and the more rockin’ Stanley Weasel of The Riverbottom Nightmare Band. Jerry was not only a brilliant puppeteer but also a dyed-in-the-wool singer and musician. Although I’m a fan of Nelson’s 2001 album Truro Daydreams and some key Fraggle Rock tracks, his vocal parts on this soundtrack are now the best available example of what a fantastic singer he was.

It’s honestly difficult to critique this one because everything on the album is so strong. Emmet Otter really runs the gamut musically: we’ve got the jug band/bluegrass charm of “Ain’t No Hole In The Washtub,” and “Bar-B-Que,” to the gentle and smart ballad “Our World,” sung by Muppet regular Marilyn Sokol. “Our World” has a flavor very similar to other soft seventies ballads written by Paul Williams, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which was a hit for The Carpenters in 1970.

However, Williams really lets loose with the theme he wrote for the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. It’s thumpy hard-rock, and bluesy riffs almost sound like a Led Zeppelin parody, definitely appropriate for the era. It also allows some incredibly fun vocals from Nelson plus Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt and Henson himself.

It’s honestly an impressive feat when the song “Brothers,” sung by Emmet and his pals as the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jugband and Alice Otter’s “Our World,” start intertwining at the tail end of this soundtrack. This is complicated musical stuff for a short TV special and stands out here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWRoAac6tAE

Then there is the song that Alice Otter sings for the gone but not forgotten Pa Otter, “When The River Meets The Sea.” I’ve written about how much I love this song for Tough Pigs before: it is an absolute crown jewel in the Muppet musical canon. Gentle, epic and hymnal in all the right ways, “When The River Meets The Sea,” offers a simple and wonder-filled philosophical outlook that suits the TV special, and fits the humble and emotionally powerful worldview of Henson and the Muppets like the snuggest of gloves. The more upbeat gospel/dixieland flavored reprise featured at the end of the soundtrack is a very welcome addition here as well.

Jerry Nelson on the set of Emmet Otter

The soundtrack also features a previously unreleased bonus track: “Born in a Trunk,” which is bawdy and fun, but relatively inconsequential addition. What I would have loved to have been included in addition to “Trunk” is Paul Williams’ demos for this project that he must have recorded before he got into the studio with the Muppet gang. I’d love to hear his vocals on top of these, some of the best songs he wrote in his career. Maybe Muppet/Williams fans like myself can hope for some sort of special edition to be released of this soundtrack, or perhaps even a Muppet Music of Paul Williams collection featuring these songs, and the songs he co-wrote for The Muppet Movie and Muppet Christmas Carol. Yeah, the lesser-loved Muppets Letters to Santa songs could be in there too!

Regardless, this soundtrack really is a gem for fans, and also for those who enjoy Christmas music but might be sick of the onslaught of “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Rides” we get this time of year. In fact, I’d argue it’s up there as one of the best seasonal albums of all time and belongs on the shelf right next to Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.  This collection would be an excellent gift for friends and family who’s childhoods were graced by the gentle philosophy of Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas or as an intro to new generations who have yet to experience the wonder that is this little 1977 TV special.

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by Louie Pearlman

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