To say that Sesame Street has produced a wealth of good songs would be an understatement. To date, the show has been responsible for well over 100 records’ worth of material (albeit some with duplicate songs), a number of which are quite excellent. For instance, 1974’s Pete Seeger & Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street, which finds the folk duo visiting some traditional classics with the help of Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch, or 1978’s Sesame Street Fever, an album that not only features a white-suit clad Grover getting funky on the front, but also boasts discofied versions of classics like “C Is For Cookie.”
For my money, though, the best Sesame Street record is 1971’s The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin (later reissued as My Name Is Roosevelt Franklin.) A controversial character that only appeared on Sesame Street in the early ’70s, Roosevelt Franklin is a purple Muppet with spiky black hair and a striped shirt. And while Muppets aren’t typically thought of as having a race—especially considering they can be made from any color of felt—Franklin is often considered black, both because of his jive-talking patter and because he was voiced by Matt Robinson, an actor who also played Gordon Robinson on the show at the time.
A smarty-pants who mostly speaks in rhyme and runs his own school, despite being barely school-aged himself, Franklin was joined on the show and on The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin by his sister, Mary Frances; his brother, Baby Ray Franklin; his ethnically ambiguous friends Mobity Mosely and A.B. Cito; and his mother, the charmingly named “Roosevelt Franklin’s mother.” Franklin taught kids numbers and letters, of course, but also to stay away from poison, to keep out of the street, and to have pride in themselves, no matter what. And despite his popularity on the show, Franklin was eventually run off Sesame Street after complaints surfaced that he was a negative African-American stereotype, both because of his slang language and because his school was uncharacteristically rowdy for the program.
Listening to The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin now, 43 years after its release, it’s easy to see how some of that could be true, but Sesame Street often painted with a broad ethnographic brush in its early years. While the show is now hyper-concerned with what its characters are like, who they are, and whether any message could be misconstrued, ’70s Sesame Street was a time when a character named A.B. Cito (who, it’s worth noting, only appears on this record and was never actually on the show) could boast a thick, almost-comical Mexican accent and a giant sombrero, even though he was ostensibly a positive role model for Hispanic kids.
All politics aside, though, The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin is an excellent album. It’s aged remarkably well, and—as someone who just found it 10 or 15 years ago in a thrift store—I’ll say you absolutely don’t have to be a kid to fall in love with songs like “The Safety Boy Blues,” or “Just Because,” a human rights ballad I’ve put on many a mixtape. (“I am not old, but I am wise / Too wise to hurt some other guys / Some guys who will not live like you / Just because you want them to.”) And while some tracks, like the catchy “Mobity Mosely’s Months,” are more explicitly related to teaching basic skills, The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin really shines when it tries to teach kids to accept themselves and others, no matter what. “The Skin I’m In,” for instance, is sung by Roosevelt’s younger brother Baby Ray, and talks about how “way back in the old days, we used to be ashamed” of what color skin we had, “but then we found out we were beautiful and we’ve never been the same.” That’s some powerful stuff right there—not just for kids, but for adults as well.
Ultimately, The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin stands the test of time not just because of its catchy tunes—and, believe me, they’re exceptionally catchy—but because of how the album and the character of Roosevelt Franklin managed to capture a moment in time. While many of The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin’s messages are just as valid today as they were 43 years ago—Black is beautiful, accept each other, share, we’re all different and that’s okay, and so on—they all really emerged as things we should teach kids in the late ’60s and early ’70s, making this album both a time capsule and a solid contemporary message. In his Sesame Street classroom, Roosevelt Franklin taught kids that it was okay to be different, to look different, and to be themselves, and those lessons are still just as valid and important today as they were the day this album came out.