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Paul Williams on the enduring magic and no-longer-lost music of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas

Paul Williams on the enduring magic and no-longer-lost music of <i>Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas</i>
Photo: Paul Williams (Earl Gibson III/Getty Images), Emmet Otter (Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company), Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Paul Williams helped build the sound of the 1970s, penning hits for The Carpenters and Three Dog Night before picking up a Grammy and an Oscar for his contributions to the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version of A Star Is Born. In 1976, he traveled to the United Kingdom to tape a guest appearance on The Muppet Show, where he flattened a monster, sang “An Old Fashioned Love Song” alongside his own Muppet likenesses, and forged a creative partnership that would extend to Kermit and company’s first cinematic effort and their first following the death of creator Jim Henson. But before “The Rainbow Connection” and “One More Sleep Til Christmas,” there was a humbler Muppet-Williams collaboration: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, the TV special based on the picturebook by Russell and Lillian Hoban. The woodland riff on “The Gift Of The Magi” has long felt like the best-kept secret in the Henson oeuvre: Emmet initially struggled to find a broadcast home—it premiered in Canada in 1977 before coming to HBO in 1978—and Williams’ jaunty mix of bluegrass, gospel, and Tin Pan Alley originals (plus one face-shreddingly heavy rock number) went decades without an official soundtrack release.

But much like Williams himself—the president and chairman of the American Society Of Composers, Authors And Publishers, his recent output includes work with fans-turned-colleagues on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, and a forthcoming musical adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth—Emmet and the jug-band are experiencing a resurgence of late. The 40th anniversary of the special’s U.S. debut brings a Blu-ray release as well as a theatrical engagement (in a double feature with The Bells Of Fraggle Rock), the second date of which occurs this Sunday, December 16. And there’s finally an Emmet Otter album, issued in November by The Jim Henson Company and Music.Film. Speaking with The A.V. Club from his home in California, Williams discussed working with Jim Henson, his affinity for Gonzo The Great, and the legacy of Emmet Otter.

The A.V. Club: Why has it taken so long for the soundtrack to be officially released?

Paul Williams: I can’t really explain why it took so long. What is wonderful is what happened during the 40 years—people really, really embraced this story, which was for me and everybody at Henson a labor of love. It was that first big step away from the format of the Muppets—whether it was on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. For the first time, you see Kermit riding a bike. For Jim especially, it was a real test run for The Muppet Movie.

It was a great little spiritual fairy tale to work on. A lesson in my life is don’t count something as a failure too quickly. Nobody went to see Phantom Of The Paradise in 1974. These days, some of the work that I’m doing is because people like Guillermo del Toro or Daft Punk liked [Phantom Of The Paradise] and gave me an opportunity to work with them. I think that Emmet Otter is a classic example of what a real enthusiastic fanbase can do. People loved this, made it a part of their family’s Christmas, and passed it on. The kids grew up and had kids and Emmet moved from one household to the next. At this point, you’ve got people that saw it when it first came out and their kids and their grandkids watching it. There’s just no sweeter reward for a songwriter or for a creator.

AVC: In that time, have people asked about where they can hear the songs?

PW: Every now and then someone would say, “I’d love to get the songs,” but it wasn’t like there was a line at my front door. It’s something that rolled out in the last few years, that people really wanted the soundtrack. By the time that actually happened, what [the record label] essentially had was the guide tracks for the Muppeteers—a mix with the vocal way, way out in front of the tracks so they could properly lip sync their characters to the songs. And what amazed me is just the work that was done to pull a balanced, really sweetly listenable representation of the songs [from that]. It sounds like they jumped into the masters or the original eight-track and remixed it. When I first heard [the unrestored audio], I thought, “How are they going to do this?” And by god they did it.

Songs will take you back to other places in your life just generally. But these songs take you back to the visual of the Jim Henson experience of Christmas. If I’m listening to the soundtrack album of A Star Is Born with Barbara—it’s like pulling teeth to get me to mention my title’s isn’t it?—the songs don’t necessarily take me back to what was going on on the screen. There’s something about the simplicity of the story and just the elegance of that that when I hear the songs from Emmet Otter, each of the songs takes me back to the visual, to what it was like to experience, in a studio, the amazing performances of Jerry Nelson and Jim and Frank Oz and Dave Goelz. For it to be this meaningful to me and not have Gonzo in it shows you how special it is. Gonzo, he’s my brother. I think if I have a Muppet counterpart, it has to be Gonzo—because he’s a landlocked bird. I think we’re all landlocked birds in a lot of ways.

AVC: And you gave him one of The Muppet Movie’s most poignant songs, “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” 

PW: There are two stories that I almost always tell about Jim if I’m talking about what it was like to work with him. The first one is meeting at my place up in the Hollywood Hills with Jim, [longtime Muppet writer] Jerry Juhl, Frank Oz, and Dave Goelz and talking about what the movie was going to be about. Basically it was going to be a road picture about how the Muppets got together. How does it start? Well, we find Kermit sitting in a swamp. What’s he doing? Jim thought for a second, and he said, “Playing the banjo.” [Laughs.] So we had to do the “The Rainbow Connection”

Even though I did the songs for Emmet Otter myself, I really wanted Kenny Ascher to work with me on The Muppet Movie, because his melodies are so gorgeous and I wanted the best for Kermit and the gang. So I’m walking Jim to the car [after the meeting], and I said, “Kenny and I will not surprise you, Jim. As we’re coming up with ideas for the songs and when we’re working on them, we’ll make sure that you hear them—make sure we’re on the right track.” And he said, “Oh, Paul. No, no. I’ll hear them in the studio when you record it.” And it just stopped me. I’d never experienced that in a big-budget creative situation. Usually it’s like, “Check in with us every three hours. We want to know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.” He trusted that he had managed to gather around him the people that really fit. And I think that one of the main reasons that I wound up writing the songs and the underscoring for Emmet Otter is that he wanted to see how I fit with everybody else before we jumped into The Muppet Movie.

The other story that I tell about Jim is about Gonzo. Kenny and I both love Gonzo. And there was a scene in the film where the car breaks down when they’re on their way to Hollywood. You got this landlocked bird out in the middle of the desert—and as an old hippie who spent a little time in the ’60s in a variety of conditions out in the desert, I imagined Gonzo staring at that sky. What did he feel? So we wrote this song, and I played it for Jim, and he said, “Oh, it’s so pretty, but I don’t… hmm.” And he made a lot of sounds, which usually meant that he didn’t know how to do it, which he never really said. He sort of wandered off, and as far as we were concerned, it was the end of the story.

He came back maybe a little later—it could have been a couple days—and he said, “Let me ask you a question: What if we do a scene where Gonzo buys a bunch of helium balloons for Camilla, his girlfriend, and he buys too many, and all of a sudden, he experiences flight?” So you have that experience of flying under the balloons—something that is a practical expression of an experience for everyone in the audience to see. That then awakened something in Gonzo: “Oh, this is where I belong. This is part of my world, and I’m going to go back there someday.” What a generous, creative spirit Jim Henson was, that he would continue to prowl around for an idea that would allow us to write the song.

It’s my favorite song. I love the response to “Rainbow Connection”—to have somebody come up and say, “My little girl’s learning to play ‘Rainbow Connection’ on the piano,” is a pure gift and all. But there’s something about Gonzo singing “I’m Going To Go Back There Some Day” that is probably as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like I wrote something that is just purely spiritual.

AVC: I have to be honest—I’m welling up just hearing you say the title of the song.

PW: Aw, well that’s why we have to stay friends. My nickname is “Weepy Williams.” I cry at a fucking commercial—if they reject a potato chip, I relate to the potato chip.

AVC: Could you sense that sort of trust from Jim when you were working on Emmet Otter? 

PW: There was never that over-the-shoulder, hands-on omnipresence with Jim. The closest I can come to describing it: I was in the valley in the ’90s, early 2000s, driving out to meet a guy to write. I was in a residential neighborhood, and as I came around a corner, I saw this kid. He was probably 6, 7 years old, and he had a paper hat—you know, kids back in the ’40s or whatever would fold a newspaper together to make a paper hat—and he had a picket fence sword, and he was deep into the drama and having a serious conversation with his opponent. He was totally committed to the creative experience, and what I think is the trick to being really fully creative is to play at it. Stay open and let it flow—doesn’t need to make sense. And this kid was just paying, and brilliant—no indecision, no stopping to go, “What am I going to say next?” I think there was some piece of that in Jim. He was precise in the choices that he made because the work was always so good, but I never got the feeling that he imposed any sort of restrictive kind of a mentorship over it. If you talk to Frank or Dave, they would probably have even more insight than I do, but my experience was just always “Here: Do what you do with this.” When you get into a place where you’re working with somebody that open, I think it opens you as well.

These songs were the easiest songs I ever wrote. I couldn’t get them down fast enough. I’m amazed at the number of inner rhymes in [“The Bathing Suit Your Grandma Otter Wore”]. You can’t stop and do that. The story becomes the wind in your sail and all of a sudden you’ve written a song. And at this point, I’m not sure whose names to put on it with mine because it doesn’t feel like something I did alone.

AVC: I’ve read you say that it’s like the unconscious mind takes over when you’re writing something like that.

PW: My description of the creative process is like when you’re trying to remember somebody’s name. So it’s like, “Forget about it. It doesn’t matter anyway.” And then you’re laying there in the middle of the night and you sit up in bed and say, “Arthur Hunnicutt!” But the fact is that during that interim, your creative process continues. The unseen allies are up there looking through your old Rolodex, and they eventually find it.

There’s a wonderful composer named Richard Bellis who’s on the ASCAP board of directors and he gave me great feedback from that. He said, “You get a job to do something and you put it off, you put it off, you put it off. You think you’re procrastinating, but you’re not. You’re percolating.” While you’re not thinking about it, you’re doing the real work. I would imagine that if you try to really concentrate when you’re juggling, it’s impossible to juggle. I think you have to just throw the balls up in the air and catch them. You start thinking about it, they wind up on the floor. That’s like what writing is like for me.

AVC: Did you relish the opportunity to write in multiple styles for Emmet Otter? There’s the jug-band music, but there’s also the hymnal of “When The River Meets The Sea,” “The Bathing Suit Your Grandma Otter Wore” has the feel of a novelty song, and then there’s the hard rock played by The Riverbottom Nightmare Band. 

PW: “The grass does not grow in the places where we stop and stand / Riverbottom Nightmare Band!” There have been two opportunities to write that energy with Jim: Dr. Teeth was like the good-guy, spiritual experience of that kind of music, and then you go to the dark side for the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. The chance to say everything that you never want your children to hear [Laughs.] as a belief system: They hate things they don’t understand.

I don’t know if you ever saw Phantom Of The Paradise, but it’s something where I was able to basically satirize so many different kinds of music—a lot of it that I really loved. There’s a satirization of The Beach Boys and this “future rock” that was almost predictive of the glam rock and the really dark stuff that was going to come.

I started out as an actor, and I just couldn’t make a living at it. I began writing songs for my own amusement. But once I had any kind of a chance to participate in writing for films—from Bugsy Malone to Phantom to A Star Is Born, I love that medium. And it’s at its best when you can just a) dive into a story and b) play around with different styles of music.

AVC: Do you feel like that experience is analogous to acting? Like getting to play different roles, but as a songwriter?

PW: It was absolutely that. I wrote the songs for Ishtar—Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman were two mismatched writers. One was this country guy and the other one was the slick New York character. I really approached writing the songs basically as two guys who were going the wrong direction. They get something started off in one way and then it would jump into another: [Sings “Dangerous Business,” from Ishtar.] “Telling the truth can be dangerous business / Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” Next line: “If you admit that you can play the accordion / No one will hire you in a rock ’n’ roll band.” [Laughs.] It was like, “Wait a minute. They were really off to a nice start there.” Then I’ll say, “It’s something in the mismatch.” I think it is a chance to also expose more of the inner life of the characters you’re writing for. Gonzo, being able to write something for his inner life. And for Emmet, to wind up with a song like “When The River Meets The Sea,” which is a really, really interesting gospel song.

The other thing that I love about Emmet Otter is that it’s Christmas, but it’s not just Christmas. Emmet Otter is a story that has real spiritual values, and yet is not draped in extensive religion that limits it to one specific celebration. The spiritual elements of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas work beautifully in all the other ways to reach the Big Amigo [Williams’ term for the higher power] that we all participate in. I’m 28 years sober, so the Big Amigo has been a constant companion no matter the season for me, giving me a third act I could’ve never imagined.

AVC: There are so many things that differentiate it from other Christmas specials, too: It’s free of consumerism, it’s savvy about class structure—it has a lot of human insight for a story about animals.

PW: It is, and the other thing is it’s really a tip of the hat to childlike storytelling. I think that they have since removed the strings of the marionettes, but when it was first shown on HBO, the marionettes are very awkwardly walking along on the ice, and you could see the strings and all. I think it added an element of pure Americana craft to the experience. Some of that simple artistry, simple craft, and trusting the audience’s imagination enough to let them see the strings.

Jim could’ve gone in and shot a “cowboy” where it was from the waist up of the characters, moving along very smoothly on the ice. But he didn’t. He trusted his audience to have enough forgiving, active imaginations to see it for what it was and invest in it. Much of the magic that is in Emmet Otter is delivered by the audience watching it. And I think he had the good sense to understand that, and it almost goes back to that kid with a paper hat and the picket fence sword. If you can commit to that, then you’re a part of the company—you’re a Muppet, too. I think I’ve got it in my DNA.

Incidentally, that’s not something I’ve ever said before or even thought about before, but it occurred to me in this conversation: The magic of Emmet Otter is we are given the opportunity to be a part of the energy that allows the magic to be seen and experienced.