Joanna McNaney Stein shares one of her favorite Christmas albums: the soundtrack to Jim Henson’s, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a musical about loving music. Enjoy!
Suppose the season this year is not making you feel jolly, and you’re tired of jingling all the way to the pharmacy for Kleenex. In that case, I have the musical antidote: the soundtrack to Jim Henson’s 1977 TV special, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, composed by the legendary Paul Williams. Right about now, some Grinchy grown-ups might feel skeptical about a Muppet musical with otters. Fair enough. But hear me out – watching and listening to Emmet Otter is a nostalgic bear hug for your soul. So bundle up. We’re headin’ out on the river!
Emmet’s story began as a 1971 children’s book by writer-illustrator spouses Russell and Lillian Hoban. Henson adapted the original book into a 48-minute film that plays out in the “run-down” river town of Frogtown Hollow. The premise centers around cuddly protagonists Emmet and Ma Otter, who are trying to stay emotionally, financially, and physically afloat after losing their beloved Pa Otter. The movie remains a close adaptation of the book, and the combination of Henson’s magic with Williams’ soundtrack makes it an irreplaceable holiday classic.
Williams co-wrote many popular songs in his long career. Notable tunes such as “An Old Fashioned Love Song” by Three Dog Night, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded by The Carpenters, and the wildly beloved “Rainbow Connection” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie are just a tiny sampling. For Emmet Otter, the ten compositions that made the cut show the range of Williams’ songwriting abilities. From the heart-breaking ballad “When the River Meets the Sea” to the scrappy, jug-band tune “Bar-B-Que,” all the way to the hard rocking, Edgar Winter “Frankenstein”-esque “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.”
What adds another layer of meta-sweetness to Emmet Otter, in addition to its handmade, pre-internet-era charm, is that it is a musical about loving music. Right from the start, as Emmet and Ma navigate the riverbank with only memories and melodies, they harmonize until the sun sets with the foreshadowing first song, “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub.” Soon after, audiences discover that Ma is a singer who once played the piano as a girl, and Emmet longs for a used guitar with ‘mother of pearl inlay’ after he sees one in the window of a music store. Ma wants to make Emmet happy by buying him the used guitar for Christmas, and Emmet similarly intends to make his mother happy by putting a down payment on a used piano.
When a $50 prize in a nearby town’s talent contest is mentioned, it becomes the beacon of hope for affording each other’s Christmas gifts. Unbeknownst to each other, both Emmet and Ma decide to enter the contest. Emmet forms a jug band with three woodland pals, putting a hole in Ma’s washtub, which she uses to launder clothes, for Emmet’s washtub bass, while Ma sells Pa’s tool chest, which Emmet uses for odd jobs, to afford material for a new dress.
The last-minute entry of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band into the talent contest adds an unexpected twist. This band of wealthy and hilariously comical “hooligans,” as Ma calls them, from the nearby town of Riverbottom, showcases Paul Williams’ musical versatility. Listening to their eponymous song draws parallels to the era’s hard rock influences.
The film is a nostalgic journey for those who want to relive the simple magic of children’s television from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Emmet Otter is a testament to the enduring appeal of Jim Henson’s storytelling and Williams’ musicianship, offering a heartwarming experience that moves sweetly through each generation.
Joanna McNaney Stein is a writer and an Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York, Kingsborough. Her creative work has appeared in Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction, PopMatters, Bust, LGBTQ Nation, The Brooklyn Rail, and the satirical Hard Times. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram (@joannafolk). Visit her website at: www.joanna-stein.com