January 16, 2013

By Susan Tofte

Rubber Duckie: the Story Behind Sesame’s Iconic Bath Time Tune

Ed. Note: Susan Tofte is Sesame Workshop’s Archivist.

Beginning with the iconic opening lines to “The Sesame Street Theme” that opened the first episode, music has always played a critical role in setting the educational and creative standards of Sesame Street. Early songs such as “I Love Trash,” “People In Your Neighborhood,” “Green,” “One of These Things,” and “Rubber Duckie” (just to name a few) have a memorable and timeless quality to them. Many have become classics in their own right.

Take the song “Rubber Duckie,” Ernie’s classic ode to bath time toys.  Written by Jeff Moss, the song debuted on February 25, 1970 during Sesame Street’s first season. In the skit, Ernie, performed by Jim Henson, soaks in a bath and sings the song to his very favorite little pal. When the Workshop began releasing musical content from the show on records in the summer of 1970, “Rubber Duckie” was included on the very first album. The song went on to sell more than 1 million copies as a single and reached number 11 on the Billboard chart in 1971. It was nominated for The Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1970, losing out to The Sesame Street Book and Record, which itself contained the song. Since then, the song has been included on 21 different albums released by the Workshop.

“Rubber Duckie” inspired follow-up songs like “Do De Rubber Duckie”, “D-U-C-K-I-E”, and “Put Down the Duckie.” During Season 25, Little Richard sat in a bathtub at the piano and performed a rock-and-roll version of the song. In a skit from 2000, Ernie convinced Bert to sing the song as practice in the even that Ernie wouldn’t be around to sing it to his friend. The song has been recorded in Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish and Dutch. In 1996, a German version of “Rubber Duckie” sold 1.8 million copies. The English version on Sesame Street has almost 14 million views on YouTube.

Jeff Moss, composer and lyricist of "Rubber Duckie"

The words and music for “Rubber Duckie” exemplify Jeff Moss’s writing style – fun, energetic, sentimental, and entertaining. Moss was invited to join Sesame Streetas the original head writer, composer and lyricist in 1969 – a job he thought would last for six months. He ended up spending more than two decades as a writer and composer for the series and penned many of show’s best known songs including “Rubber Duckie,” “People In Your Neighborhood,” “I Love Trash” and “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon.” In an interview in 1998, Moss explained his approach to song writing. “I don’t look at writing for children is that different than writing for anybody else,” he said. “The emotions that you write about are for the most part the same as you would write about for anybody. You just do it with a vocabulary of experience that children will understand.” In 2007, Princeton University ranked Moss among its top 20 most influential alumni, citing the effects of his songs and characters on the Sesame Street audience.

Music and singing have always been an integral part of the material taught on Sesame Street. Some songs even had success far beyond the show’s reach. On any given night, in any city or town, in houses with young children, “Rubber Duckie” is still sung as part of the nightly bath time ritual. Hearing the song at any age reminds us of something Jeff Moss once said. “All of us have a great deal of child left in us.”

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