Meet Johnny Costa, the Pianist Who Introduced Millions of Mister Rogers Fans to Jazz

Jazz pianist and com­pos­er Charles Cor­nell is not alone in his con­tempt for the sort of dumb­ed down musi­cal fare typ­i­cal of children’s pro­gram­ming.

The late John­ny Cos­ta, Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hoods long-time musi­cal direc­tor and a self-described “real jazzer,” was of like mind:

Chil­dren have ears, and they’re peo­ple, and they can hear good music as well as any­body else. So I start­ed right from the begin­ning play­ing for them as I would for any adults.

The show not only hooked many young view­ers on jazz, it may have plant­ed a sub­lim­i­nal pref­er­ence for live jazz.

None of the show’s music was pre­re­cord­ed.

Instead, Cos­ta attend­ed every tap­ing, pro­vid­ing live accom­pa­ni­ment just off cam­era with per­cus­sion­ist Bob­by Raw­sthorne and bassist Carl McVick­er. They were such an inte­gral part of the show’s vibe that in 1985, Mr. Rogers broke the fourth wall to show his “tele­vi­sion neigh­bors” their set up.

As Cor­nell notes, above, host Fred Rogers, an accom­plished pianist him­self, wrote the program’s sig­na­ture tunes, includ­ing its famous open­ing theme, but left it to Cos­ta to impro­vise as he saw fit.

As a result the open­ing num­ber varies a bit from episode to episode, with hints of Oscar Peter­son, Art Tatum, Thelo­nius Monk and oth­er jazz world greats.

Cor­nell con­sid­ers Cos­ta their “crim­i­nal­ly unno­ticed” equal, but observes that his quar­ter cen­tu­ry of involve­ment on Mis­ter Rogers Neigh­bor­hood means his music has like­ly reached a far larg­er audi­ence.

Cos­ta had carte blanche to noo­dle as he saw fit under the onscreen pro­ceed­ings, includ­ing the many dis­cus­sions of feel­ings. This musi­cal under­scor­ing helped Rogers demon­strate the wide range of human emo­tions he sought to acknowl­edge and nor­mal­ize with­out con­de­scend­ing to his preschool audi­ence.

The show’s web­site prais­es Cos­ta for simul­ta­ne­ous­ly know­ing “when to stop play­ing and let the silence take over, as there were times when Fred Rogers didn’t want any­thing, even music, to dis­tract the chil­dren from con­cen­trat­ing on what he was say­ing or show­ing.”

As Cos­ta revealed:

I watch Fred, and there must be some kind of telepa­thy that we’re not aware of, because some­how I get the mes­sage to play or not to play.  I’m sure that some of it has to do with work­ing togeth­er all these years, but a lot of it is unex­plain­able.

The show afford­ed him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to play with renowned neigh­bor­hood vis­i­tors like trum­peter Wyn­ton Marsalis and croon­er Tony Ben­nett, as well as the Land of Make Believe’s pup­pets inhab­i­tants.

Which is not to say he nev­er ven­tured out­side of the neigh­bor­hood. Behold Cos­ta and “Handy­man” Joe Negri per­form­ing on 67 Melody Lane, a show geared toward adult view­ers.

Stream more of John­ny Costa’s music for Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood below.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Mis­ter Rogers Makes a List of His 10 Favorite Books

Mr. Rogers’ Nine Rules for Speak­ing to Chil­dren (1977)

The Col­ors of Mis­ter Rogers’ Hand-Knit Sweaters from 1979 to 2001: A Visu­al Graph Cre­at­ed with Data Sci­ence

Via Laugh­ing Squid

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Meet Alma Deutscher, the Classical Music Prodigy: Watch Her Performances from Age 6 to 14

One needn’t think too hard to come up with a list of cel­e­brat­ed chil­dren who seem some­how less excep­tion­al when their baby fat comes off and their per­ma­nent teeth come in.

We’ll eat Wern­er Herzog’s shoe if Alma Deutsch­er’s name is on it.

When she was 11, con­duc­tor Johannes Wild­ner told the New York Times that “she is not good because she is young. She is good because she is extreme­ly tal­ent­ed and has matured very ear­ly.”

Her par­ents were the first to rec­og­nize her extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties.

It’s nice when a musi­cal­ly gift­ed child is born to par­ents who are not only will­ing to cul­ti­vate that seed, they under­stand that their 18 month old sings with per­fect pitch…

She was near­ing the age of rea­son when the gen­er­al pub­lic became acquaint­ed with the pig­tailed com­pos­er who played piano and vio­lin, loved impro­vis­ing and drew con­stant, not uni­ver­sal­ly wel­come com­par­isons to Mozart.

At sev­en, she penned a short opera inspired by “The Sweep­er of Dreams”, a short sto­ry by Neil Gaiman.


She fol­lowed that up with a full length oper­at­ic reimag­in­ing of Cin­derel­la (age 10) and rig­or­ous train­ing that built on her ear­ly expo­sure to Par­ti­men­ti — key­board impro­vi­sa­tion.

Now 18, Alma con­tin­ues to spell­bind lis­ten­ers with her seem­ing­ly mag­i­cal abil­i­ty to con­jure a piano sonata using ran­dom­ly select­ed notes in less that a minute, just as she wowed 60 Min­utes cor­re­spon­dent Scott Pel­ley after he picked a B, an A, an E flat, and a G from a hat back in 2017, when she was 12.

She’s was unabashed about her love of melody in the 60 Min­utes appear­ance, and has remained so, explain­ing the rea­son­ing behind her piece, Waltz of the Sirens, to a 2019 Carnegie Hall audi­ence by say­ing that she’s always want­ed to write beau­ti­ful music:

Music that comes out of the heart and speaks direct­ly to the heart, but some peo­ple have told me that nowa­days melodies and beau­ti­ful har­monies are no longer accept­able in seri­ous clas­si­cal music because in the 21st cen­tu­ry, music must reflect the ugli­ness of the mod­ern world. Well, in this waltz, instead of try­ing to make my music arti­fi­cial­ly ugly in order to reflect the mod­ern world, I went in exact­ly the oppo­site direc­tion. I took some ugly sounds from the mod­ern world, and I tried to turn them into some­thing more beau­ti­ful through music.

The full length opera The Emperor’s New Waltz is the soon to be 19-year-old’s first major adult achieve­ment in what promis­es to be a long career.

Tak­ing her inspi­ra­tion from Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, she sought to cre­ate a love sto­ry that would appeal to young pop fans (while also get­ting a few swipes in at the “tune­less world of aton­al con­tem­po­rary music.”)

As she not­ed in an inter­view with Germany’s Klas­sik Radio, it’s “def­i­nite­ly the beau­ti­ful melodies that unite pop and clas­si­cal music:”

I’m sure that if Mozart or Schu­bert had heard the most beau­ti­ful melodies of ABBA, or Queen or Elton John, then they would have been jeal­ous and they would have said, “I wish I had thought of that!”

Relat­ed Con­tent

Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces 7‑Year-Old Yo-Yo Ma: Watch the Young­ster Per­form for John F. Kennedy (1962)

Leonard Bernstein’s First “Young People’s Con­cert” at Carnegie Hall Asks, “What Does Music Mean?”

Hear the High­est Note Sung in the 137-Year His­to­ry of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Origin Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: How a 1939 Marketing Gimmick Launched a Beloved Christmas Character

It’s time to for­get near­ly every­thing you know about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer…at least as estab­lished by the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop motion ani­mat­ed tele­vi­sion spe­cial.

You can hang onto the source of Rudolph’s shame and even­tu­al tri­umph — the glow­ing red nose that got him bounced from his play­mates’ rein­deer games before sav­ing Christ­mas.

Lose all those oth­er now-icon­ic ele­ments —  the Island of Mis­fit Toys, long-lashed love inter­est Clarice, the Abom­inable Snow Mon­ster of the North, Yukon Cor­nelius, Sam the Snow­man, and Her­mey the aspi­rant den­tist elf.

As orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived, Rudolph (run­ner up names: Rol­lo, Rod­ney, Roland, Rod­er­ick and Regi­nald) wasn’t even a res­i­dent of the North Pole.

He lived with a bunch of oth­er rein­deer in an unre­mark­able house some­where along San­ta’s deliv­ery route.

San­ta treat­ed Rudolph’s house­hold as if it were a human address, com­ing down the chim­ney with presents while the occu­pants were asleep in their beds.

To get to Rudolph’s ori­gin sto­ry we must trav­el back in time to Jan­u­ary 1939, when a Mont­gomery Ward depart­ment head was already look­ing for a nation­wide hol­i­day pro­mo­tion to draw cus­tomers to its stores dur­ing the Decem­ber hol­i­days.

He set­tled on a book to be pro­duced in house and giv­en away free of charge to any child accom­pa­ny­ing their par­ent to the store.

Copy­writer Robert L. May was charged with com­ing up with a hol­i­day nar­ra­tive star­ring an ani­mal sim­i­lar to Fer­di­nand the Bull.

After giv­ing the mat­ter some thought, May tapped Den­ver Gillen, a pal in Mont­gomery Ward’s art depart­ment, to draw his under­dog hero, an appeal­ing-look­ing young deer with a red nose big enough to guide a sleigh through thick fog.

(That schnozz is not with­out con­tro­ver­sy. Pri­or to Caitlin Flana­gan’s 2020 essay in the Atlantic chaf­ing at the tele­vi­sion spe­cial’s explic­it­ly cru­el depic­tions of oth­er­ing the odd­ball, Mont­gomery Ward fret­ted that cus­tomers would inter­pret a red nose as drunk­en­ness. In May’s telling, San­ta is so uncom­fort­able bring­ing up the true nature of the deer’s abnor­mal­i­ty, he pre­tends that Rudolph’s “won­der­ful fore­head” is the nec­es­sary head­lamp for his sleigh…)

On the strength of Gillen’s sketch­es, May was giv­en the go-ahead to write the text.

His rhyming cou­plets weren’t exact­ly the stuff of great children’s lit­er­a­ture. A sam­pling:

Twas the day before Christ­mas, and all through the hills, 

The rein­deer were play­ing, enjoy­ing the spills.

Of skat­ing and coast­ing, and climb­ing the wil­lows,

And hop­scotch and leapfrog, pro­tect­ed by pil­lows.


And San­ta was right (as he usu­al­ly is)
The fog was as thick as a soda’s white fizz


The room he came down in was black­er than ink

He went for a chair and then found it a sink!

No mat­ter.

May’s employ­er wasn’t much con­cerned with the art­ful­ness of the tale. It was far more inter­est­ed in its poten­tial as a mar­ket­ing tool.

“We believe that an exclu­sive sto­ry like this aggres­sive­ly adver­tised in our news­pa­per ads and circulars…can bring every store an incal­cu­la­ble amount of pub­lic­i­ty, and, far more impor­tant, a tremen­dous amount of Christ­mas traf­fic,” read the announce­ment that the Retail Sales Depart­ment sent to all Mont­gomery Ward retail store man­agers on Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939.

Over 800 stores opt­ed in, order­ing 2,365,016 copies at 1½¢ per unit.

Pro­mo­tion­al posters tout­ed the 32-page free­bie as “the rol­lickingest, rip-roaringest, riot-pro­vokingest,  Christ­mas give-away your town has ever seen!”

The adver­tis­ing man­ag­er of Iowa’s Clin­ton Her­ald for­mal­ly apol­o­gized for the paper’s fail­ure to cov­er the Rudolph phe­nom­e­non  — its local Mont­gomery Ward branch had opt­ed out of the pro­mo­tion and there was a sense that any sto­ry it ran might indeed cre­ate a riot on the sales floor.

His let­ter is just but one piece of Rudolph-relat­ed ephemera pre­served in a 54-page scrap­book that is now part of the Robert Lewis May Col­lec­tion at Dart­mouth, May’s alma mater.

Anoth­er page boasts a let­ter from a boy named Robert Rosen­baum, who wrote to thank Mont­gomery Ward for his copy:

I enjoyed the book very much. My sis­ter could not read it so I read it to her. The man that wrote it done bet­ter than I could in all my born days, and that’s nine years.

The mag­ic ingre­di­ent that trans­formed a mar­ket­ing scheme into an ever­green if not uni­ver­sal­ly beloved Christ­mas tra­di­tion is a song …with an unex­pect­ed side order of cor­po­rate gen­eros­i­ty.

May’s wife died of can­cer when he was work­ing on Rudolph, leav­ing him a sin­gle par­ent with a pile of med­ical bills. After Mont­gomery Ward repeat­ed the Rudolph pro­mo­tion in 1946, dis­trib­ut­ing an addi­tion­al 3,600,000 copies, its Board of Direc­tors vot­ed to ease his bur­den by grant­i­ng him the copy­right to his cre­ation.

Once he held the reins to the “most famous rein­deer of all”, May enlist­ed his song­writer broth­er-in-law, John­ny Marks, to adapt Rudolph’s sto­ry.

The sim­ple lyrics, made famous by singing cow­boy Gene Autry’s 1949 hit record­ing, pro­vid­ed May with a rev­enue stream and Rankin/Bass with a skele­tal out­line for its 1964 stop-ani­ma­tion spe­cial.

Screen­writer Romeo Muller, the dri­ving force behind the Island of Mis­fit Toys, Sam the Snow­man, Clarice, et al revealed that he would have based his tele­play on May’s orig­i­nal book, had he been able to find a copy.

Read a close-to-final draft of Robert L. May’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer, illus­trat­ed by Den­ver Gillen here.

Bonus con­tent: Max Fleischer’s ani­mat­ed Rudolph The Red-Nosed Rein­deer from 1948, which pre­serves some of May’s orig­i­nal text.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christ­mas Car­ol Just Like Charles Dick­ens Read It

Hear the Christ­mas Car­ols Made by Alan Turing’s Com­put­er: Cut­ting-Edge Ver­sions of “Jin­gle Bells” and “Good King Wences­las” (1951)

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


When Mississippi Tried to Ban Sesame Street for Showing a “Highly Integrated Cast” (1970)

On Novem­ber 10, 1969, Sesame Street made its broad­cast debut.

The very first lines were spo­ken by Gor­don (Matt Robin­son), a Black school­teacher who’s show­ing a new kid around the neigh­bor­hood, intro­duc­ing her to a cou­ple of oth­er kids, along with Sesame Street adult main­stays Bob, Susan, and Mr. Hoop­er, and Big Bird, whose appear­ance had yet to find its final form:

Sal­ly, you’ve nev­er seen a street like Sesame Street. Every­thing hap­pens here. You’re gonna love it.

The milieu would have felt famil­iar to chil­dren grow­ing up on New York City’s Upper West Side, or Harlem or the Bronx. While not every block was as well inte­grat­ed as Sesame Street’s cheer­ful, delib­er­ate­ly mul­ti­cul­tur­al, brown­stone set­ting, any sub­way ride was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to rub shoul­ders with New York­ers of all races, class­es and creeds.

Not six months lat­er, the all-White Mis­sis­sip­pi State Com­mis­sion for Edu­ca­tion­al Tele­vi­sion vot­ed 3 to 2 to remove Sesame Street from their state’s air­waves.

A dis­grun­tled pro-Sesame com­mis­sion mem­ber leaked the rea­son to The New York Times:

Some of the mem­bers of the com­mis­sion were very much opposed to show­ing the series because it uses a high­ly inte­grat­ed cast of chil­dren.

The whistle­blow­er also inti­mat­ed that those same mem­bers object­ed to the fact that Robin­son and Loret­ta Long, the actor por­tray­ing Susan, were Black.

They claimed Mis­sis­sip­pi was “not yet ready” for such a show, even though Sesame Street was an imme­di­ate hit. Pro­fes­sion­als in the fields of psy­chol­o­gy, edu­ca­tion, and med­i­cine had con­sult­ed on its con­tent, help­ing it secure a sig­nif­i­cant amount of fed­er­al and pri­vate grants pri­or to film­ing. The show had been laud­ed for its main mis­sion — prepar­ing Amer­i­can chil­dren from low-income back­grounds for kinder­garten through live­ly edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram­ming with ample rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Kids grow­ing up in shel­tered, all-white enclaves stood to gain, too, by being wel­comed into a tele­vi­sion neigh­bor­hood where Black and white fam­i­lies were shown hap­pi­ly coex­ist­ing, treat­ing each oth­er with kind­ness, patience and respect. (Sonia Man­zano and Emilio Del­ga­do, who played Maria and Luis, joined the cast soon after.)

Even though Alaba­ma, Arkansas, Flori­da, Louisiana and Ten­nessee also moved to pre-empt the inno­v­a­tive hit show, the gov­ern­ment appointees on the Mis­sis­sip­pi State Com­mis­sion for Edu­ca­tion­al Tele­vi­sion who’d oust­ed Sesame Street found them­selves out­num­bered when Jack­son res­i­dents of all ages staged a protest in front of Mis­sis­sip­pi Pub­lic Broadcasting’s HQ.]

The Delta Demo­c­rat-Times pub­lished an edi­to­r­i­al piece argu­ing that “there is no state which more des­per­ate­ly needs every edu­ca­tion­al tool it can find than Mis­sis­sip­pi:”

There is no edu­ca­tion­al show on the mar­ket today bet­ter pre­pared than Sesame Street to teach preschool chil­dren what many can­not or do not learn in their homes….The needs are immense.

After 22 days, the ban was rolled back and Sesame Street was rein­stat­ed.

That fall, the cast made a pit­stop in Jack­son dur­ing a 14-city nation­al tour. Susan, Gor­don, Bob, Mr. Hoop­er and Big Bird sang and joked with audi­ence mem­bers as part of an event co-spon­sored by the very same com­mis­sion that had tried to black­ball them, and left with­out hav­ing received a for­mal apol­o­gy.

Sesame Street has stayed true to its pro­gres­sive agen­da through­out its fifty+ year his­to­ry, a com­mit­ment that seems more essen­tial than ever in 2023.

Below, Elmo, a Mup­pet who rose through the ranks to become a Sesame Street star engages in an entry-lev­el con­ver­sa­tion about race with some new­er char­ac­ters in an episode from two years ago.

The Sesame Work­shop rec­om­mends it for view­ers aged 1 to 4, though it seems our coun­try doesn’t lack for adult cit­i­zens who could do with a refresh­er on the sub­ject…

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch Twin Beaks, Sesame Street’s Par­o­dy of David Lynch’s Icon­ic TV Show (1990)

Philip Glass Com­pos­es Music for a Sesame Street Ani­ma­tion (1979)

Watch Jazzy Spies: 1969 Psy­che­del­ic Sesame Street Ani­ma­tion, Fea­tur­ing Grace Slick, Teach­es Kids to Count

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

1000+ Barbie Commercials Provides Context for This Summer’s Pinkest Blockbuster (1959–2023)

The Bar­bie movie has cap­tured the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion in a big way.

The New York Times can’t get enough of the recent­ly opened sum­mer block­buster. Between reviews, fash­ion round ups, inter­views, box office reports and op eds, it has pub­lished over two dozen pieces tied to this mas­sive cul­tur­al moment.

Even those who don’t feel a burn­ing need to catch Bar­bie at the mul­ti­plex are like­ly aware of the Bar­ben­heimer phe­nom.

But what about those who grew up in fem­i­nist homes, or sis­ter­less cis-males of a cer­tain age?

Will a lack of hands-on expe­ri­ence dimin­ish the cin­e­mat­ic plea­sures of Bar­bie?

Not if you immerse your­self in Bar­bi­eCol­lec­tors’ chrono­log­i­cal playlist of Bar­bie com­mer­cials before tick­et­ing up. That’s over a thou­sand ads, span­ning more than six decades.

The 1959 ad, above, that intro­duced the glam­orous “teen age fash­ion doll” to the pub­lic clears up the mis­per­cep­tion that pink has always been Barbie’s de fac­to col­or. It’s black-and-white, but so is the diag­o­nal striped swim­suit the film’s star, Mar­got Rob­bie mod­els in the film’s open­er, a tongue in cheek homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(Astute observers may note the sim­i­lar­i­ties between some of the sophis­ti­cat­ed ensem­bles orig­i­nal fla­vor Bar­bie sports here and the out­fits Rob­bie donned for the pink car­pet pri­or to the Screen Actors Guild strike.)

In the bat­tle between pink and his­tor­i­cal record, pink is des­tined to come out on top in the Bar­bie movie. Direc­tor Gre­ta Ger­wig and her design team punch up Barbie’s ear­ly 80’s West­ern look with a wide pink brush, low­er­ing the neck­line but keep­ing the wink.

The doll came with a work­ing auto­graph stamp Rob­bie may con­sid­er adopt­ing, should Bar­bie mania con­tin­ue on into fall.

One of the most thrilling design ele­ments of the movie is the human scale Dream­hous­es occu­pied by Bar­bie and her friends, the major­i­ty of whom are also named Bar­bie.

The Dream­house has tak­en many archi­tec­tur­al forms over the years — town­house, cot­tage, man­sion — but it always comes with­out a fourth wall.

Anoth­er cin­e­mat­ic treat is the roll call of vehi­cles Bar­bie com­man­deers on her jour­ney to the real world with her hap­less boyfriend, Ken.

Some of the film’s deep­er cuts are jokes at the expense of mis­guid­ed releas­es, Bar­bie side­kicks so ill-con­ceived that they were quick­ly dis­con­tin­ued, although 1993’s Ear­ring Mag­ic Ken became a best­seller, thanks to his pop­u­lar­i­ty in the gay com­mu­ni­ty.

Look for Barbie’s preg­nant pal, Midge, her yel­low Labrador retriev­er, Tan­ner (whose scoopable excre­ment was quick­ly deemed a chok­ing haz­ard) and Grow­ing up Skip­per, the lit­tle sis­ter who goes through puber­ty with a twist of the arm … “which is some­thing you can’t do,” the commercial’s nar­ra­tor taunts in a rare rever­sal of the “girls can be any­thing” ethos Mat­tel insists is part of the brand.

Of course, one can only cram so many know­ing­ly-placed prod­ucts into one fea­ture-length film.

Are those of you who grew up with Bar­bie hurt­ing from any glar­ing omis­sions? (Ask­ing as a child of the Mal­ibu Bar­bie era…)

Those who didn’t grow up with Bar­bie can play along too by sam­pling from Bar­bi­eCol­lec­tors’ mas­sive chrono­log­i­cal com­mer­cial playlist, then nom­i­nat­ing your favorites in the com­ments.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Mattel’s Bar­bie Turns Women of Med­i­cine, Includ­ing COVID Vac­cine Devel­op­er, Into Dolls

The New David Bowie Bar­bie Doll Released to Com­mem­o­rate the 50th Anniver­sary of “Space Odd­i­ty”

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the Original Schoolhouse Rock Composers Sing “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill” Live in Concert

At first blush, School­house Rock!, the inter­sti­tial ani­ma­tions air­ing between ABC’s Sat­ur­day morn­ing car­toon line up from 1973 to 1984, may seem like a catchy, edu­ca­tion­al equiv­a­lent of sneak­ing spinach into pan­cakes (and a major Gen X touch­stone.)

Not so fast! It’s also jazz, baby!

Jazz pianist Bob Dor­ough recalled how an ad exec at a New York ad agency pitched the idea:

My lit­tle boys can’t mem­o­rize their times tables, but they sing along with Jimi Hen­drix and the Rolling Stones, so why don’t you put it to rock music and we’ll call it Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion Rock?

Dor­ough, whose com­po­si­tion­al pref­er­ences ran to “extrav­a­gant love songs” and vocal chal­leng­ing num­bers, real­ized that his first order of busi­ness would be to write a good song:

I hit upon the idea, let’s pick a num­ber. Three! That’s a good num­ber. And I sat down at the piano and start­ed fool­ing around. It took me 2 weeks.

In his hands, three became a mag­ic num­ber, an ear worm to bring even the most reluc­tant ele­men­tary math­e­mati­cians up to speed in no time.

Even­tu­al­ly, Dor­ough was able to bring many of his jazz world friends into the fold, includ­ing, most famous­ly, trum­peter and Merv Grif­fin Show side­kick Jack Shel­don, whose one-of-a-kind deliv­ery is the hands down high­light of “Con­junc­tion Junc­tion.”

(Many School­house Rock! fans, view­ing the excerpt of the duo’s mid-90’s live appear­ance on the KTLA Morn­ing Show, above, pro­fessed dis­be­lief that Sheldon’s soul was of the blue-eyed vari­ety, even though the ani­mat­ed engi­neer who serves as his avatar in that three minute episode is white.)

In an inter­view with the direc­tor of the Fil­lius Jazz Archive at Hamil­ton Col­lege, Shel­don agreed that the series owed a major debt to jazz:

When we made Con­junc­tion Junc­tion, it was me and Ted­dy Edwards and Nick Ceroli and Leroy Vine­gar and Bob Dor­ough played the piano. That’s a jazz band…it was real­ly noth­ing to do with rock. It was always jazz, but we said rock and roll, so every­body loved it for rock and roll.

Anoth­er mem­o­rable col­lab­o­ra­tion between Shel­don and Dor­ough is the much par­o­died “I’m Just a Bill,” in which a weary scroll loi­ters on the steps of the Cap­i­tal Build­ing, explain­ing to a wide eyed young­ster (voiced by his son) the process by which a bill becomes law.

Dor­oughs’ School­house Rock! con­tri­bu­tions include the haunt­ing Fig­ure Eight, the folky Lucky Sev­en Samp­son, whose sen­ti­ments Dor­ough iden­ti­fied with most close­ly, and Naughty Num­ber Nine, which his pro­tégé, singer-song­writer Nel­lie McK­ay sin­gled out for spe­cial praise, “cause it was kind of weird and sub­ver­sive:”

(It) made me want to gam­ble and win. I got hooked when I heard Bob’s jazzy rasp of a voice break­ing the rules even as he explained them… this guy had a wild mind, which I fig­ured out lat­er equaled cre­ativ­i­ty.

She also paid the per­pet­u­al­ly sun­ny Dor­ough, whom she first encoun­tered “glow(ing) with health and good cheer, spread­ing sun­shine wher­ev­er he went on the cam­pus of East Strouds­burg Uni­ver­si­ty, the supreme com­pli­ment:

Lou Reed’s idea of hell would be to sit in heav­en with Bob Dor­ough.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent 

School­house Rock: Revis­it a Col­lec­tion of Nos­tal­gia-Induc­ing Edu­ca­tion­al Videos

I’m Just a Pill: A School­house Rock Clas­sic Gets Reimag­ined to Defend Repro­duc­tive Rights in 2017

Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry Rock: The School­house Rock Par­o­dy Sat­ur­day Night Live May Have Cen­sored

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Discover Pemmican, The Power Bar Invented Centuries Ago by Native American Tribes

Out­door enthu­si­asts of a non-veg­e­tar­i­an stripe, do you weary of gar­den vari­ety ener­gy bars and trail mix?

Per­haps you’re feel­ing adven­tur­ous enough to make your own pem­mi­can, var­i­ous­ly described by Tast­ing His­to­rys Max Miller, above, as “history’s Pow­er Bar” and “a meaty ver­sion of a sur­vival food that has a shelf life not mea­sured in months but in decades, just like hard tack.”

Per­haps you’re already well acquaint­ed with this  low-carb, keto­genic portable pro­vi­sion, a culi­nary sta­ple of the upper half of North Amer­i­ca long before the first Euro­pean traders set foot on the land. Many indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across North Amer­i­ca are still pro­duc­ing pem­mi­can for both per­son­al and cer­e­mo­ni­al con­sump­tion.

Back in 1743, Hudson’s Bay Com­pa­ny fur trad­er James Isham was one of the first to doc­u­ment pem­mi­can pro­duc­tion for an Eng­lish read­er­ship:

 [Meat] beat between two Stones, till some of itt is as small as Dust…when pound­ed they putt itt into a bag and will Keep for sev­er­al Years, the Bones they also pound small and Boil them…to Reserve the fatt, which fatt is fine and sweet as any Butter…Reckon’d by some Very good food by the Eng­lish as well as Natives.

Per­haps now would be a good time to give thanks for the plen­ti­ful food options most of us have access to in the 21st-cen­tu­ry (and pay it for­ward with a dona­tion to an orga­ni­za­tion fight­ing food inse­cu­ri­ty…)

A time may come when know­ing how to make pem­mi­can could give us a leg up on sur­viv­ing, but for now, exe­cu­tion of this recipe is like­ly more of a curios­i­ty sat­is­fi­er.

To be fair, it’s not designed to be a del­i­ca­cy, but rather an extreme­ly long last­ing source of calo­ries, four times as nour­ish­ing as the same weight of fresh meat.

If you want to try it, lay in 2 pounds of meat — bison is his­tor­i­cal­ly the most pop­u­lar and most doc­u­ment­ed, but deer, elk, moose, beef, fish, or fowl work well too.

You’ll also need an equal amount of suet, though heed Miller’s advice and add just enough to make things stick.

Bump the fla­vor up a notch with ground dried berries, sug­ar, or salt.

(Miller went the tra­di­tion­al route with choke­ber­ries, pro­cured in an extreme­ly 21st-cen­tu­ry man­ner.)

In terms of appli­ances, feel free to use such mod­ern con­ve­niences as your oven, your blender, and a small pan or mold.

(Please report back if you take the old school route with fire, direct sun­light, mor­tar, pes­tle, and a bag formed from undressed hide.)

Giv­en Miller’s response to the fin­ished dish, we’re hunch­ing most of us will rest con­tent to feast on his­tor­i­cal con­text alone, as Miller digs into the Pem­mi­can Procla­ma­tion of 1814, the Sev­en Oaks Inci­dent and the unique role the bira­cial, bilin­gual Métis peo­ple of Cana­da played in the North Amer­i­can fur trade

Those still up for it should feel free to take their pem­mi­can to the next lev­el by boil­ing it with wild onions or the tops of parsnips, to pro­duce a ruba­boo or rechaud, as bushcrafter Mark Young does below.

You can also get a taste of pem­mi­can by order­ing the Tan­ka Bars that Oglala Lako­ta-owned small busi­ness pro­duces on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reser­va­tion.

Watch more of Max Miller’s Tast­ing His­to­ry videos here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday. 

A Retired Math Teacher Helps Students Learn Geometry Through Quilting

Some real talk from retired geom­e­try teacher Wendy Licht­man, above, the author of sev­er­al math-themed YA nov­els:

Not many 15-year-olds care that two par­al­lel lines are crossed by a trans­ver­sal.

“But right here are two par­al­lel lines,” she con­tin­ues, point­ing to a pink and orange quilt. “and these are trans­ver­sals, and they are at a 90º angle and it feels real. You’ve got­ta get it to look right.”

The teenaged par­tic­i­pants in the Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia pro­gram she found­ed to demys­ti­fy geom­e­try through hands-on quilt­mak­ing get it to look right by plot­ting their designs on graph paper, care­ful­ly mea­sur­ing and cut­ting shapes from bright cal­i­co of their own choos­ing. (Lic­th­man has com­mit­ted to but­ton­ing her lip if their favored print is not to her taste.)

Licht­man came up with this cre­ative approach to help a bright stu­dent who was in dan­ger of not grad­u­at­ing, hav­ing flunked geom­e­try three times.

She details their jour­ney in How to Make a Geo­met­ric Quilt, an essay for­mat­ted as step-by-step instructions…not for quilt­mak­ing but rather how those in the teach­ing pro­fes­sion can lead with humil­i­ty and deter­mi­na­tion, while main­tain­ing good bound­aries.

Some high­lights:

6. Some­time after the sewing has begun, and the math note­book is ignored for weeks, begin to wor­ry that your stu­dent is not real­ly learn­ing geom­e­try.  She’s learn­ing sewing and she’s learn­ing to fix a bro­ken bob­bin, but real­ly, geom­e­try?

7. Remind your­self that this kid needs a quilt as much as she needs geom­e­try.

8. Remem­ber, also, the very, very old woman who taught you hat-mak­ing one night long ago.  She had gone to school only through 5th grade because, she said, she was a Black child in the deep south and that’s how it was back then.  Think about how she explained to the hat-mak­ing class that to fig­ure out the length of the hat’s brim, you need­ed to mea­sure from the cen­ter to the edge with a string and then do “three of those and a lit­tle bit more,” and remem­ber how you sat in awe, because three radii and a lit­tle bit more is the def­i­n­i­tion of pi, and this hat-mak­er had evi­dent­ly dis­cov­ered for her­self the for­mu­la for cir­cum­fer­ence.

As the two become bet­ter acquaint­ed, the stu­dent let her guard down, reveal­ing more about her sit­u­a­tion while they swapped sto­ries of their moth­ers.

But this was no easy A.

In addi­tion to expect­ing reg­u­lar, punc­tu­al atten­dance, Lict­man stip­u­lat­ed that in order to pass, the stu­dent could not give the fruits of her labor away.

(Sol­id advice for cre­ators of any craft project this ambi­tious. As Deb­bie Stoller, author of Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knit­ter’s Hand­book coun­sels:

…those who have nev­er knit some­thing have no idea how much time it took. If you give some­one a sweater, they may think that you made that in an evening when you were watch­ing a half-hour sit­com. It’s only when peo­ple actu­al­ly attempt to knit that they final­ly get this real­iza­tion, this light bulb goes on over their heads, and they real­ize that, “Wow, this actu­al­ly takes some skill and some time. I’ve got new­found respect for my grand­ma.”)

Ulti­mate­ly, Licht­man con­cludes that the five cred­its she award­ed her stu­dent could not be reduced to some­thing as sim­ple as geom­e­try or quilt-mak­ing;

You are giv­ing her cred­it for some­thing less tan­gi­ble.  Some­thing like pride.  Five cred­it hours for feel­ing she can accom­plish some­thing hard that, okay, is slight­ly relat­ed to geom­e­try.

Exam­ples of the cur­rent cohort’s work can be seen on Rock Paper Scis­sors Col­lec­tive’s Insta­gram.

Once com­plet­ed, these quilts will be donat­ed to Bay Area fos­ter chil­dren and pedi­atric patients at the local Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal.

via Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Solar Sys­tem Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Cre­ates a Hand­craft­ed Quilt to Use as a Teach­ing Aid in Her Astron­o­my Class

17-Year-Old Ade­line Har­ris Cre­at­ed a Quilt Col­lect­ing 360 Sig­na­tures of the Most Famous Peo­ple of the 19th Cen­tu­ry: Lin­coln, Dick­ens, Emer­son & More (1863)

Bisa Butler’s Beau­ti­ful Quilt­ed Por­traits of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat & More

Via Boing Boing

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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