Wistful children's song adapted as a call for Civil Rights
'Bein' Green' first appeared on the children’s television programme Sesame Street in 1970. However, even songwriter Joe Raposo, vocalist Jim Henson and the show’s producer Joan Ganz-Cooney must have been surprised at how quickly the song was picked up by a host of well-known ‘adult’ artists.
Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Frank Sinatra, Cher, Julie Andrews and others all recorded versions of this slow, complex and reflective song that was written and recorded in a single night for a television show aimed primarily at pre-schoolers.
But what was it about the song that made it appeal to both adults and to Sesame Street’s pre-school curriculum focussed music programmers?
After two years of development, Sesame Street launched in 1969. What turned out to be hundreds of record albums soon followed.
Released in 1970, The Sesame Street Book & Record exudes many of the typical musical characteristics of childness . Simplicity, rhyme, repetition and upbeat tempos are key features of most of the songs on the album. These include 'I Love Trash', 'People in Your Neighborhood' and 'One of These Things', all of which have been revisited many times in Sesame Street's 50+ years on air. 'Rubber Duckie' even made #16 on the Billboard singles charts.
However, one notable exception closes the album.
‘Bein’ Green’ (the original title ‘Green’ is used on the original vinyl version) has a low undulating tempo, a barely defined acoustic guitar rhythm and a complex chord progression that features a downwards chromatic opening shift. This is followed by a minor dominant chord and a downwards mediant modulation (tone and a half) later in the song, all wrapped up in an extended form influenced by musical theatre.
The lyrics are existential and self-reflective especially in the context of a record made primarily for children:
When green is all there is to be,
It could make you wonder why,
But, why wonder, why wonder?
I'm green and it'll do fine,
It's beautiful and I think it's what I want to be
Themes of rejection, isolation and acceptance of bodies and selves all have precedent in children’s recorded music. Think of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, ‘Jake the Peg’ and ‘The Ugly Duckling’. However, these songs are, on the whole, accompanied by more typical musical, lyrical and sonic signifiers of childness, usually medium to high tempos, major keys, repeated choruses and hook lines, and comedic or celebratory themes.
Unsurprisingly, when the Children's Television Workshop played ‘Bein’ Green’ to test audiences of children in early internal evaluations, it scored poorly. Children were confused by the song and unable to identify that Kermit’s musings about his skin colour resulted in his resigned contentment .
The slow tempo led the children to think that the song was sad. Indeed, for young children, it is the tempo or speed of the music rather than the lyrics, key or other musical devices that tend to communicate the emotion of a song . To them, ‘Bein’ Green’ was indeed a sad song.
While Kermit sang ‘Bein’ Green’ a number of times on Sesame Street during the 1970s, 1980s and more recently, perhaps predictably, this 'grown up' song found favour with 'adult' artists outside of the context of children’s music and television.
Frank Sinatra was the first off the mark.
He included ‘Bein’ Green’ on his Sinatra & Company album in 1970.
This was soon followed by a half-spoken version by Lena Horne on her Nature’s Baby album in 1971. Horne went on to appear in three episodes of Sesame Street including one in 1974 in which she replicated her album version of ‘Bein’ Green’ with Kermit. She later appeared as a guest star on The Muppet Show.
Inspired, most likely, by Sinatra’s version rather
than Kermit’s original, others followed in the 1970s and beyond. These include Van Morrison’s bluesy big band treatment on his Hard Nose the Highway album (1973)
... and Ray Charles’ sumptuous version on his Renaissance album (1975) which was followed by a visit to Sesame Street the same year.
While Ray explained that the song was a plea for racial pride and civil rights, producer Joan Ganz-Cooney suggested that ‘it was meant to be about people who are different in more ways than just race’ .
Attesting to the song’s musical adaptability, ‘Bein’ Green’ features on other Sesame Street albums including a bluesy version by José Feliciano on ¡Sesame Mucho! (1974) and Kermit’s disco version on 1979’s Sesame Disco!.
The song has also been sung on Sesame Street by Julie Andrews:
... and on TV specials by Cher and Goldie Hawn and others.
‘Bein’ Green’ was also sung by Carrol Spinney as Big Bird at Jim Henson's funeral in London in 1990.
As well as 'Bein' Green', Joe Raposo also wrote ‘Somebody Come and Play’ for The Sesame Street Book & Record. Like ‘Bein’ Green’, the song is wistful and full of musical complexity. It balances a delicate sense of hope with an unanswered plea for company:
Somebody come and play before it’s too late to begin … watch the sun ‘til it rains again
Another of Raposo's Sesame Street compositions ‘Nobody’ is musically and lyrically despondent. It details Mr. Snuffleupagus’ loneliness and his retreat into the world of ‘make believe’.
In the mid-1970s, The Children’s Television Workshop’s curriculum priorities shifted away from numbers, letters, sorting and ordering towards community, sociability, self-awareness, tolerance and racial pride. The in-house song writers responded with compositions that were in turns clever, funny, political, emotional and sensitive to the issues at hand as well as being engaging and accessible for young listeners.
‘Bein’ Green’ is nuanced and profound. It exposes children to the ambiguities of life in a sensitive and accessible way that makes few musical compromises for their age. Rather than blending in with so many of the ordinary songs that populate the 85 albums that Sesame Street Records released in its first 14 years (1970-1984), ‘Bein’ Green’ continues to stand out like the flashy sparkles on the water or the stars in the sky that Kermit sang about over 50 years ago.
For interviews with Jim Henson, Frank Oz and
others on the subject of ’Bein’ Green’, check out this 5-minute documentary:
For full details of the appearances of ‘Bein’ Green’ on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and elsewhere, visit this Wiki:
 I’m using Peter Hollindale’s concept of 'childness' from his 1997 book Signs of Childness in Children’s Books. Stroud, Glos. UK: Thimble Press.
 Fisch, S. M. and Truglio R. T. eds. 2000. G Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street. London and New York: Routledge. p.236.
 Mote, J. 2011. ‘The effects of tempo and familiarity on children's affective interpretation of music’, Emotion, 11(3): pp.618-622.
 Davis, M. 2008. Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. New York: Penguin Books. p.257.