Paul Williams on Creating the Music for ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas’ as the Henson Special Moves to Theaters
A vintage holiday television program is getting the big screen treatment this Christmas season, as Fathom Events presents Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas as part of Jim Henson’s Holiday Special, set to be beamed into theaters across the country this Sunday (Dec. 16).
It is only the latest sign that the warm holiday tale, almost forgotten by the public at large, has become a word-of-mouth Christmas tradition that continues to grow in popularity each year.
It’s an odd turnaround in fortune that even the legendary names behind Emmet could never have predicted. Based on a book by Russell and Lillian Hoben, the tale of Emmet Otter — a poor, young critter who has recently lost his father, and hopes to win a talent contest in order to use the cash prize to buy a Christmas present for his mother — featured a fantastical cast of woodland puppets courtesy of Henson, with original music created by Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams.
While the outpouring of love that Williams has received for his work on Emmet in the past few years has stunned him, it was the recent success of the soundtrack album that truly floored him. Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (Varese Sarabande) finally saw its first proper release in any format this past November, including a limited vinyl pressing for Record Store Day that sold out nationally within two days, and was the top seller at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.
“I’m just amazed at how many people showed up to buy it nationally,” Williams tells Billboard with a laugh. “The remastering for the album was just brilliant, and they made a really well-balanced little record out of it.”
Points out Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation, “The show was first broadcast on HBO in 1978 when not many people had [the cable channel] back then, so there are a lot of people who have only just discovered it many years later. There’s never really been a licensing program around it.”
“It’s funny, because if you were to put everything that’s happened with it — the vinyl selling out everywhere within two days; such a demand for it that another pressing has been ordered already — into a movie, people would call bullshit on it for being too corny,” Williams adds. “It’s a tribute to Jim Henson, a tribute to all the heart he put into this.”
Heart, yes, but also a willingness to allow other creative minds to follow their own muses while working on the project. The one-hour Christmas special was the first collaboration between Henson, who died in 1990, and Williams, a partnership that would go on to see the songwriter receive an Academy Award nomination for The Muppet Movie’s “Rainbow Connection” in 1980.
“He trusted the people he brought onto a project,” Williams states, “but he trusted his instincts, too. He felt that, if he brought a creative soul onto a project to work on it, he wanted that soul to be heard. It was a rare, beautiful experience to work with him.”
The songwriter rewarded that trust by writing songs for the Emmet soundtrack that could only be performed honestly when coming from an otter made of cloth. Tunes such as “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub” and “The Bathing Suit That Grandma Wore” would have been a hard sell to another singer if Henson had turned them down, but Williams’ approach to creating the lyrics for his first project with Henson would go on to be the same that he took when writing for any film project.
“I wrote for the characters,” explains Williams. “It wasn’t like when I would write a song for the Carpenters, and if they turned it down, I would turn around and pitch it to Three Dog Night. When I would write for characters, I considered [Muppet Show member] Gonzo to be just as well-defined as Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born, with little difference when it came to writing the material. How it was sung is up to the [person] performing.”
That authenticity reverberates with viewers, according to Cheryl Henson.
“When people watch something like Emmet Otter, it’s something that they can actually imagine reaching out and touching,” she says. “The show itself is all handmade, so when looking at a little critter, you realize that someone actually hand sewed the little dress it’s wearing. My dad was born in Mississippi, and that whole Southern tradition of music was really tapped into by Paul, with the jug band music having such a great handmade quality to it also.”
“I still don’t know why he chose me to provide the songs for Emmet Otter,” Williams admits to Billboard, “because it certainly wasn’t typical of what I was doing at that time. I think between writing [Three Dog Night’s 1971 hit] ‘An Old Fashioned Love Song’ — which I know he loved — and the humorous appearances I was making across TV at that time, he just connected me with the project. He gave me the opportunity, and it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”