Bob McGrath sing-along album cover.

The Life of Song

What the surprising career of Bob McGrath teaches us about popular music.

Bob McGrath, who died this week at 90, is known to millions as the affable cast member from Sesame Street who sang about the “People in Your Neighborhood.” One of the original four hosts in Sesame Street’s very first episode in 1969, “Bob” remained one of the program’s central characters through hundreds of episodes: his sincerity and gentle manner resonated with Muppets and children alike, his unflappable sweetness made a perfect foil to Oscar’s grouchiness, he learned American Sign Language to communicate with Linda the librarian, and he was known to all as a music teacher and avid singer. Far less known is that before his nearly 50 years on Sesame Street, as a professional vocalist, McGrath was a favorite among the much older television audience of Sing Along with Mitch – and among adoring teenagers in Japan.

Even if you didn’t know about Bob’s career before Sesame Street, you probably know many of the songs he sang in those early days.  They were songs like “Oh, Susannah!,” “Home On the Range,” “Danny Boy,” and “White Christmas.” Old music. But it turns out that much of the music you learned from Bob on Sesame Street was also old when you learned it – some was even old when he learned it. Sesame Street incorporated a lot of classical, folk, jazz, and Broadway standards, introducing kids of the 1970s and beyond to a canon of American popular music. And by the end of McGrath’s career on Sesame Street, many of the program’s most famous original songs, like “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)” were themselves old classics. 

Old music frequently flies under the radar – the music critics and historians who shape our collective memory often treat music history as a parade of new songs knocking last week’s songs off the charts, never to be heard from again. So sometimes when we think about music history, we forget that old music is always there. It’s probably safe to say that most of the music you hear every day – on the radio, in stores, at family or community celebrations – is old. The music that has the most meaning to you is probably music you’ve known for a while. 

When I was a graduate student studying history and listening to old Sesame Street music (completely separate activities for me at the time), discovering the whole recording career that Bob McGrath had before Sesame Street suddenly made me aware of this phenomenon. All this old music was still around, finding its way to new audiences, and I wanted to read more about it. Nobody had written what I wanted to read, so I set out to write about it. For that, I needed to go to the source. I met Bob in 2010, to interview him about his long career bringing old music to new audiences, so I could write a history article about it. The article became a doctoral dissertation and the interview became a friendship, but I never got around to writing the article until now. So here it is.[i]

Born on an Ottawa, Illinois farm in 1932, Robert Emmett McGrath lived a music-filled childhood. After his mother discovered him singing along to her piano playing, she taught him “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “In the Good Old Summertime.” By the time he was nine, his parents routinely took him on the two-hour drive to Chicago to enter radio talent contests like “Ruben’s Stars of Tomorrow.” At home and in public, McGrath sang what he retrospectively labeled as “sort of bizarre songs for a five-, six-, seven-, eight-year-old”: the songs his accompanist mother liked best, including love ballads and Tin Pan Alley mock-Irish tunes like “Mother Machree.” Throughout his youth, he performed Gregorian chants in his church choir, and sang solo at weddings, funerals, and community meetings. When war came in 1941, his mother sewed him a costume and enlisted his service. “I’d go to all these bond drives with my Uncle Sam suit and hat,” he recalled, “singing ‘Any bonds today, bonds of freedom, that’s what I’m selling.’” During high school he had his own weekly half-hour local radio program. While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan, he recorded and toured nationwide with the Glee Club, soloing on choral works and singing close harmonies in a barbershop quartet. 

Although no individual’s engagement with music could possibly stand in for the whole nation’s musical experience, and McGrath’s experiences as a child performer and a voice major certainly make him an outlier, many of McGrath’s musical experiences echoed those that had characterized American life in the days before recording, when most of the music average Americans heard was that which they made themselves. Genres, performers, and audiences were fluid, as songs composed for opera were adapted for parlor play, and sentimental ballads written for amateurs were interspersed amongst operatic arias in the programs of famous vocalists. Tin Pan Alley maintained decades-long stylistic continuity that ensured the lasting presence of turn-of-the-century songs in American life: by the time McGrath learned it in the 1930s, “In the Good Old Summertime,” originally published in 1902, was already an inter-generational classic. Before an industry produced music for audiences segmented by age, children listened to the same music adults enjoyed. In the classroom, that meant classical music, while in the home, that often meant both contemporary and old popular music. Music was woven into the fabric of everyday life, social rituals, and community gatherings. 

These patterns persisted into the 1950s and ’60s -- a time usually associated with rapid stylistic change catering to young audiences. McGrath’s vocal career demonstrates that while television, Top 40 radio, and a growing national obsession with youth did come to shape the ways teens interacted with popular music, other technological and social developments altered older audiences’ engagement with the Tin Pan Alley songs of their own youth. 

McGrath’s versatility in both musical style and media proved the key to his success as a professional vocalist in the 1950s and early 1960s. After a two-year stint singing and conducting at 7th Army headquarters in Stuttgart, McGrath went to New York to earn a Master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, and to embark on a career as a professional vocalist. He found employment at St. David’s Boys School, teaching music to elementary school students in exchange for room and board. In New York, he performed classical works at a range of venues from churches to recording studios, under the direction of such greats as Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky. Meanwhile, he recorded backing vocals for popular artists including Mario Lanza and Anita Bryant, sang radio and television jingles, and performed between movie showings at Radio City Music Hall. He later told the Archive of American Television that in his freelancing years, he discovered  that he particularly enjoyed “the immediacy” of television work, of “coming in and being challenged and going and not being involved for months at a time on the same project.”

McGrath’s national television break came when music producer Mitch Miller turned a successful series of sing-along albums into a weekly revue for NBC. Miller understood the selling power of familiar music. He had started the trend of “Greatest Hits” albums to promote the re-release of Johnny Mathis’s recordings, and capitalized on film’s re-popularization of old songs with his choral recording of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which climbed the charts in 1955. He next released a string of albums of traditional songs and Tin Pan Alley standards, arranged plainly and sung in a straightforward style by a male chorus. By billing them as “Sing-Along” albums, Miller produced the songs not for passive listening but rather for a different type of audience engagement with audio technology. “America’s been singing along in churches, in choirs, in glee clubs, ever since day one,” Miller explained in his Archive of American Television interview, so he chose songs he thought most Americans already knew. Indeed, McGrath’s repertoire on Sing Along with Mitch, and on his 1965 solo album Mitch Miller Presents Bob McGrath, included the same Tin Pan Alley standards, Irish (and mock-Irish) songs, folk songs, and 19th-century parlor songs that he had been singing since childhood. 

With traditional pop vocalists selling fewer and fewer albums in the wake of rock ‘n’ roll and the folk revival, early television variety shows provided one of the last venues where audiences could regularly hear those familiar songs. Sing Along with Mitch took the throwback a step further,  prompting viewers to engage in live communal music-making practice in ways that echoed Americans’ experience with radio in the 1930s. After the program’s cancellation in 1965, the chorale embarked on a concert tour around the U.S. – and to Japan, which had been airing Sing Along with Mitch on public broadcasting network NHK. “Every time I came out to do a solo,” he remembered, “five thousand teenagers were screaming Bobu, Bobu, Bobu! Bobu Magulas!” The group’s booking agent discovered that teenagers had set up Bobu Magulas fan clubs in different cities, so he invited McGrath to come back as a solo nightclub act. Thus began McGrath’s three-year, nine-tour, six-album stint performing old American songs for Japanese teenagers.

To make the most of his time in Japan, McGrath endured marathon recording sessions to tape scores of songs for a daily feature on a late-night variety show called 11 P.M. In April of 1966, Nippon-Columbia signed McGrath to an exclusive recording contract, making him the first American artist to sign with a Japanese recording company. Over the next few years, he recorded several singles and EPs, an album of folk songs entirely in Japanese (Bob McGrath Sings Japanese Favorite Songs), and several bilingual albums, including a live concert recording (Bob McGrath in Tokyo), songs from his television appearances (11 P.M. with Bob McGrath), a Stephen Foster Songbook, and a mix of Japanese and western traditional folk and popular music from the 19th and early 20th centuries (Home Sweet Home). Billboard magazine reported in 1968 that McGrath was “the No. 2 foreign singer on the charts [in Japan], second only to Andy Williams.”

Back home in the U.S., he was starting to become something of a novelty, singing “Danny Boy” in Japanese on To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret. But in Japan, audiences did not appear to hear him as an oddity. What McGrath had stumbled upon was a set of musical and aesthetic parallels between Japanese and American popular culture, but in a different social context that rendered inapplicable the age associations that Americans heard in the songs he recorded. The theme of nostalgia ran through many of them, from 19th-century parlor songs like “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming” and Tin Pan Alley classics like “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby)” to more contemporary standards like “Sunrise, Sunset.” Nostalgia for home, parents, parted lovers, and the rural lifestyles of bygone days also played a central role in early 20th-century Japanese popular music. One of McGrath’s most popular offerings was “Kojo No Tsuki (Moon Over the Ruined Castle),” Rentarō Taki’s 1901 ballad of samurai warriors returning home after a long campaign, only to find their lord’s castle destroyed. Another, “Shina No Yoru (China Night),” a 1938 song from the Second Sino-Japanese War by Nobuyuki Takeoka and Yaso Saijō, told of an occupying soldier and a local girl who had shared a magical evening but were now separated by the Sea of Japan. Two American songs that McGrath recorded entirely in Japanese – John P. Ordway’s 1851 “Dreaming of Home and Mother” and William S. Hayes’s 1873 “My Dear Old Sunny Home” – had fallen out of the American repertoire before the age of recording, but had entered Japanese culture at some point. It’s easier to find them on YouTube today being performed in Japanese and Chinese than in English.

The ease with which McGrath blended American popular songs with his Japanese repertoire attests to not only the lyrical but also the structural similarities of the two nations’ music. American and Japanese popular music shared an orientation toward European art music, with its bel canto melodic styles and its use of the pentatonic scale to evoke a sense of folk heritage. Stephen Foster, for instance, incorporated bel canto style into parlor songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and used pentatonic scales in his more minstrel-derived songs like “Nelly Bly.” Meanwhile, as Japan began forging sustained cultural contact with the west during the Meiji Restoration period (1868-1912), Japanese composers integrated elements of European art music into their own songs: Tamezō Narita used the pentatonic scale in his 1912 composition “Hamabe No Uta (Song of the Seashore),” while Yamada Kōsaku adapted a fourteen-note motif from Schumann as the central melody of his 1921 composition “Akatonbo (Red Dragonfly).” Japan and the U.S. also underwent parallel folk music revivals in the 1920s and 1960s that repopularized commercial popular songs (parlor songs and Tin Pan Alley in the U.S., kayakyōku in Japan), valorized traditional songs with rural origins (cowboy ballads and old-time Appalachian string bands in the U.S. and min’yō in Japan), inspired new songs composed by poets in folk styles (the original compositions of the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the U.S., and shin-min’yō in Japan), and blended them together into hybrid cross-cultural instrumentation with nostalgic lyrics (traditional pop with its Italian and Latin American influences in the U.S., enka with its western influences in Japan). The range and focus of McGrath’s Japanese repertoire thus corresponded closely to that of his western repertoire both in its time period and its relationship to folk and classical traditions.

Despite these parallels, McGrath’s teenage following in Japan attached very different meanings to the songs he performed than did American audiences. This was largely a function of the post-World War II era in Japan, when occupying forces brought records and broadcast music from radio stations on military bases. Urban youth devoured it all, from bluegrass to the Beatles. The recordings of crooners like Perry Como and Andy Williams were especially popular, not only because they were devoid of any association they would have had on the other side of the Pacific with older generations, but also because they were melodically and lyrically comprehensible. 

When months-long tours away from his young family became unsustainable, he turned down another return trip in 1968 to find work again in New York. In the heyday of psychedelic rock, he knew he could not continue a recording career singing traditional pop, but he also had no interest in children’s entertainment and initially rebuffed the suggestion from his college friend Dave Connell that he audition for an innovative new television program Connell was producing. Not until McGrath saw the animations and puppet sketches commissioned for the pilot did he realize that Sesame Street would be a variety show that took music and comedy seriously.

It also turned out that his experience had perfectly, if unexpectedly, prepared him for the demands of a much younger audience. Prevailing notions about the relative safety of old music as compared to unfamiliar new idioms had rendered Tin Pan Alley, folk, and classical appropriate children’s music by default.  Still, while the same songs and styles McGrath had been singing for decades were deemed  suitable for youngsters,  children’s music had generally not been sung by classically trained professional vocalists – until Sesame Street

Throughout its first decade, Sesame Street featured a variety of musical styles, composed, arranged, and performed at a level of quality one might expect in music for an adult audience. While all cast members sang the program’s signature educational songs, McGrath, more than other cast members, sang other types of songs as well, including pop numbers like “Up, Up and Away” and “Good Morning Starshine,” folk revival songs like “Morningtown Ride” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and Tin Pan Alley standards like “Play a Simple Melody” or “Aren’t You Glad You’re You.” Of Sesame Street’s thousands of original songs, McGrath carried most of the gentler ones, such as lullabies like “See You Tomorrow”; sentimental songs like “Keep Christmas with You”; nostalgic ballads like “A Boy From Indiana”; and even love songs like “I Get a Nice Feeling” or “Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful?,” which, in the context of Sesame Street,often addressed themes of friendship, emotional security, and confidence from family. The philosophy of Sesame Street’s creative staff was that each show should entertain adults as much as it captivated children, and McGrath did not change his delivery for a young audience. He brought the same tone and control to lullabies for Big Bird that he had brought to his performances of Irish folk tunes on Sing Along with Mitch. Thus, both in content and in style, many Sesame Street songs could just as easily have fit into an earlier phase in McGrath’s career.

The continuity of repertoire and style into this new phase of McGrath’s career persisted across his solo albums and live concerts for children. Seasoned Tin Pan Alley songwriter Robert Allen, who had written the theme song for Sing Along with Mitch, penned all the songs for the 1970 album Bob McGrath From Sesame Street. The selections on Bob Sings!, released by Sesame Street’s in-house label in 1977, juxtaposed newer Stevie Wonder’s songs (“Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”) with standards from Rogers and Hammerstein (“Do Re Mi,” “Getting To Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune”). The album’s version of “Edelweiss,” while in a higher key and more delicately rendered than his earlier recording for Nippon-Columbia, could have worked just as well for his Japanese audience. His rendition of “In the Good Old Summertime” passed along one of the first songs his mother had taught him to a new generation of children. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, during the months when Sesame Street was not taping, McGrath toured the country giving family concerts, appearing at children’s festivals, and hosting charity telethons. He introduced children to instruments and great works in orchestra shows modeled after Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, and he invited audience participation in pops concerts that featured Sesame Street music. He learned from his work with Mitch Miller that to encourage participation, “you have to keep it simple, you don’t want to throw them any curves.”  Just as Miller sought songs familiar to the audience, McGrath found that adults and children shared a repertoire of Christmas songs, traditional playground songs, and Sesame Street songs. 

In 1984, McGrath released a two-volume album called Sing Along with Bob. The simple arrangements of such familiar songs as “Oh Susannah!” and “You Are My Sunshine,” evoked – or in some cases were the very same – songs that McGrath had performed with Mitch Miller. But these songs, too, have had long histories, shifting genres as new generations of audiences related to them in different ways. Take “Home on the Range,” a song originally written as a poem by Brewster M. Higley and set to music by Daniel E. Kelley in the late 19th century. John Lomax collected it as a folk song in 1910, and country-western and popular artists frequently recorded it in the 1930s (when McGrath likely learned as a child). In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Mitch Miller’s chorus recorded it as singable nostalgia for older people. Its wistful lyrics and quasi-folk origins were a perfect fit with the type of songs McGrath sang for Japanese teenagers, and he later recorded it half in English and half in Japanese. By the 1980s, “Home on the Range” had become primarily a children’s song, sung at summer camp or in school, where traditional folk music was embraced as a safe and virtuous form of American culture. 

Late in his life, McGrath reflected on the Sesame Street theme, noting that it “strikes a note in every kid and every parent there, it just brings back whatever good stuff is in their head.” The show’s signature song is a case in point. “I’ve never done a concert in 40 years without doing [composer] Joe [Raposo]’s ‘Sing,’” he affirmed. “It’s a definite closer [that] always works,” especially with parents, because “it brings back memories.” As the years have passed, Sesame Street songs have come to tug at the same nostalgic heartstrings in Gen-X-ers that Tin Pan Alley songs tugged for the viewers of Sing Along with MitchSesame Street’s songs have joined the ever-present canon of old music in our lives today. The story of Bob’s music does not end here. So take it away, Bob, with your surefire closing number.

Kathryn Ostrofsky, Ph.D., is the Digital Archive Coordinator of Bunk. Her book manuscript, Sounding It Out: How Sesame Street Crafted American Culture, is under contract with the University of California Press. Her work on Sesame Street has appeared in CNN and Current, and on the podcast BackStory.

[i] Much of the biographical information and all quotations not otherwise cited are from McGrath’s personal communications to the author, mostly from two interviews in 2011.