Such Spirit through the Years: Guaraldi’s Peanuts Music Turns 50

Mike Lawson • • September 4, 2015

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Celebrate with Activities for Your Music and Performing Arts Curriculum            

Charles M. Schulz first introduced the Peanuts gang in comic strips in 1950. The music of Vince Guaraldi featured in Peanuts specials celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in December 2015. A Charlie Brown Christmas, an annual television favorite, introduced many to the jazz style of Guaraldi. This article commemorates the golden anniversary of Guaraldi’s Peanuts music and offers suggestions for classroom activities that capitalize on A Charlie Brown Christmas and Guaraldi’s music. Lesson ideas focus on music, the performing arts, and interdisciplinary learning.

The first telecast of A Charlie Brown Christmas on the CBS television network marks its fiftieth anniversary on December 9, 2015. The comic strip called Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz first appeared in newspapers on October 2, 1950. The Christmas special was the first of many TV specials bringing the Peanuts characters to life and giving them voices. A Peanuts feature film was also produced as well as a Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

When the CBS network and creative team decided to create an animated version of the Peanuts strip, the producers approached musician Vince Guaraldi to create original music to be used with traditional Christmas music. The first part of this article’s title was inspired by a line in the song “Christmas Time Is Here.” I believe that A Charlie Brown Christmas has created spirit through the years in the plural for millions of world citizens. The original lyric gives the word “year” in the singular. The special, containing so much music, can technically be considered a musical. 

This article commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas and the music of Vince Guaraldi and presents background about Peanuts, its creator Charles M. Schulz, and musician Vince Guaraldi. 

Charlie Brown, the main Peanuts character, is dissatisfied with the commercialism of Christmas trying to find the true meaning of Christmas in the Peanuts segment. Executive producer Lee Mendelson observed in his book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition: “The core of the program had already been established in the outline which had gone to our sponsor: the show would include winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music.” Regarding the music for Peanuts specials by Guaraldi, Mendelson observed that Guaraldi “became totally absorbed with it, doing the first 15 shows for us.” He observed that Guaraldi’s style of jazz was simple like the Peanuts characters. He stated that “The music helped make the shows, and the shows helped make the music.” 

Guaraldi’s son David observed that his father’s style of jazz music was very happy and that doing the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a big deal for his father and his family. He feels especially good about his father’s song “Linus and Lucy” because it has become such a popular standard. He enjoys hearing the song on the radio and television to this day. TV viewers will notice the use of “Linus and Lucy” in MetLife commercials. 

Peanuts in Popular Culture
The Peanuts characters have been an important part of my life and the life of millions of citizens globally. The comic strips, animated specials, books, the Broadway musical, feature film, and numerous collectibles have made Peanuts’ success phenomenal. The familiar Vince Guaraldi music for the Peanuts specials such as “Linus and Lucy,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” and “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” lift my spirits and are familiar to millions. I enjoyed many of the Peanuts shows, Broadway musical, and the feature film at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The sidebar “A Charlie Brown Christmas Interesting Facts” offers further insights about the TV special, while sidebars about Charles M. Schulz and Vince Guaraldi give background about these two key players in the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

A Charlie Brown Christmas Interesting Facts 
•    The original A Charlie Brown Christmas was commissioned and sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company.
•    The animation for A Charlie Brown Christmas took only six months to complete.
•    Unlike animated cartoons of the time, child actors did the voices of the Peanuts characters; also no laugh track was used and jazz music was used for the first time.
•    A Charlie Brown Christmas won both an Emmy and Peabody Award.
•    A Charlie Brown Christmas has been aired during the Christmas season every year since its debut in 1965.
•    A stage version of A Charlie Brown Christmas can be licensed by Tams-Widmark Music that includes all the music of Vince Guaraldi.
•    Executive producer Lee Mendelson wrote the lyrics for “Christmas Time Is Here” to accompany Vince Guaraldi’s musical composition for that song.
•    Kathy Steinberg, who at age six did the voice of Sally Brown, did not read at the time of the recording for A Charlie Brown Christmas so she was fed the lines by executive producer Lee Mendelson.
•    Aluminum Christmas trees became scarce within two years of the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965 because of how they are negatively depicted in the Peanuts special.
•    The singing voices heard in A Charlie Brown Christmas were those of a choir comprised of children from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. They sang “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The children were paid five dollars for their participation.
•    The Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007 and in 2012 was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings.
•    The United States Postal Service released a special stamp series in November 2015 commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Charles M. Schulz, Creator of Peanuts 
Charles Monroe Schulz (November 26, 1922-February 12, 2000) is an American cartoonist most famous for the comic strip Peanuts that ran from 1950 to 2000. His characters are a part of American and international popular culture and include Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus Van Pelt, Lucy Van Pelt, Sally Brown, Pig Pen, Schroeder, Sherman, Patty, Violet, 3, 4, and 5. Introduced later were the characters Woodstock, the Little Red Haired Girl, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Franklin. The Peanuts characters and their characteristic phrases are prominent in American popular culture. Expressions used by and about the Peanuts characters have become part of the English lexicon such as a security blanket (belonging to Linus) and “Good Grief!” Schulz has been regarded as one of the most influential cartoonists ever.

Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota but grew up in St. Paul. His uncle nicknamed him “Sparky” after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google. Schulz adored drawing and sometimes drew his family dog Spike. After serving in the U.S. army, Schulz created his first series of regular cartoons; it was a regular series of weekly one-panel jokes called Li’l Folks. These were published from 1947 to 1950 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The newspaper then dropped the strip in 1950. Schulz published seven one-panel cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post in 1948. In 1950, Schulz attempted to syndicate Li’l Folks through the Newspaper Enterprise Association but the deal fell through. That same year, Schulz approached the United Feature Syndicate and they embraced a four-panel version of Li’l Folks. Entitled Peanuts, it made its first appearance on October 2, 1950 in seven newspapers. The Sunday-page first appeared on January 6, 1952. At the height of its success, the Peanuts strip appeared in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and 21 languages. Over the nearly fifty years, Schulz drew close to 18,000 strips. The strips were published in numerous books and book collections and this contributed to the strip’s popularity. Schulz died in his sleep at home on February 12, 2000. His last original Peanuts strip was published the next day on Sunday, February 13, 2000. Schulz received a number of awards and honors throughout his career including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His legacy is the Peanuts characters who continue to be enjoyed by new generations including the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Vince Guaraldi and the Sound of Peanuts 
Vincent Anthony Guaraldi (July 17, 1928-February 6, 1976) was an Italian-American pianist and jazz musician. He was born in San Francisco’s North Beach area. This area contributed to his musical career because of its notoriety for the musical scene. His uncle Muzzy Marcellino was a musician, singer, and whistler. Marcellino and Guaraldi’s Uncle Joe, a violinist, introduced Guaraldi to the world of professional music. Guaraldi first recorded in November 1953 with Cal Tjador; the recording was released in early 1954. He had his own musical trio by 1955 with Eddie Duran and Dean Reilly. In 1963, Guaraldi had a radio hit with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The song won a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. Producer Lee Mendelson heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while traveling by taxi on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Mendelson proposed that Guaraldi score the upcoming Peanuts Christmas special and Guaraldi accepted the offer with glee. After the success of the first special, Guaraldi scored all the Peanuts TV specials until the year of his death in 1976. He had finished recording the soundtrack for “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown” on the afternoon of the day he died. A tribute album appeared by New Age pianist George Winston called “Linus and Lucy – The Music of Vince Guaraldi.” Other musicians recorded tribute tracks as well. Guaraldi will always be remembered as the man who provided the unique sound of the Peanuts animated TV specials and feature film. 

The following lists all the Peanuts specials and feature film that Guaraldi scored in chronological order. 
A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1963) (unaired TV segment)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Charlie Brown’s All-Stars (1966)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
You’re in Love, Charlie Brown (1967)
He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown (1968)
It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown (1969)
A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) feature film
Play It Again, Charlie Brown (1971)
You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972)
There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown (1973)
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)
It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown (1974)
It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (1974)
Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown (1975)
You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown (1975)
It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown (1976)

Activities for the Music and Performing Arts Curriculum     
A number of activities can capitalize on the concepts and music in A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I encourage teachers to design activities and projects that accommodate all three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic so that all students can be successful learners. Examples of each are as follows:
•    Visual students can draw, paint, create comic strips, make posters, or create videos
•    Auditory students can create or interpret songs, produce radio shows, conduct interviews, produce plays, do demonstrations, make sound recordings, or put on concerts
•    Kinesthetic students can create dances and plays, make and manipulate puppets, create puzzles, design collages, and create mosaics

Teachers can also devise activities that are appropriate for individual students, pairs, or small groups depending on the task and whether cooperative learning might foster learning and keep students engaged. Consider the following learning scenarios inspired by A Charlie Brown Christmas:

All That Jazz: Many of Vince Guaraldi’s performances fall within the jazz musical genre. An exploration of the history of jazz can easily be tied to the Charlie Brown specials. Students can learn about jazz through direct instruction, research, a project, and exposure to jazz music, both instrumental and vocal. 

“Christmas Time Is Here”: Students find different versions of “Christmas Time Is Here” and compare and contrast them. Versions by Patti Austin, Tony Bennett, and Diana Kall, among others, could be considered. Students can present an oral or written report explaining why a certain version is their favorite. Commentary about differences in arrangements or vocal delivery could be emphasized.

We Need a Little Christmas: Because of the Christmas theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas, students can learn about the historical and cultural background of celebrating Christmas. An interesting segment Rick Steves’ European Christmas can enhance this scenario because it includes yule traditions in several European countries.

Beyond Christmas: In addition to Christmas, other late year holidays could be explored for their educational benefits including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve and Day traditions. These holidays can offer something for everyone and encourage inclusion of students who might not celebrate Christmas.
Listen to the Soundtrack: Students can listen to and comment on the musicality of various tracks on the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. As an extension to other holidays, students can listen to soundtracks of other specials as the holidays fall within the school year such as Halloween (“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”), Thanksgiving (“A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving), Easter (“It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown”), Arbor Day (It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”), etc.

Sheet Music Analysis: Students can analyze the sheet music for “Christmas Time Is Here” and other music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Students can determine the time signature, key, and musical annotations of each song.

Now on Stage: Students attend a performance of the stage version of A Charlie Brown Christmas or you can stage the show at your own school. If time does not permit, do one scene or musical piece as a performance for your class or school at an assembly or at a holiday concert. Both instrumental and vocal music students can perform songs. 

TV Land: Students watch A Charlie Brown Christmas in class and identify what music plays during the various scenes (background or underscore, main musical scenes, transitions, variations of music or melodies). Students can get creative in their descriptions and offer their own interpretations and opinions about the music in speaking or writing. 

Interdisciplinary Bridges: Other subjects can be explored tied to A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Examples include the history of Christmas trees, mistletoe, cultural differences in celebrating Christmas, and yuletide musical traditions across cultures.

Peanuts and Charles M. Schulz: Students can learn about the life and work of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. In what way did bringing the Peanuts characters to life through animation and with actual voices change Schulz’s life?

Vince Guaraldi: Students learn about the composer of the Peanuts TV special music. Where was Guaraldi born? What was the music scene like in his area of birth? What song won Guaraldi a Grammy in 1963? For how many Peanuts works did Guaraldi do the music?

Role Play: Various students are given a Peanuts character to role play. This can be done without letting other classmates know the character. Students perform their characters and the other students in the class guess which character they are. 

Peanuts Specials and Film: Students can be exposed to the music in other Peanuts TV specials and the film A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Songs such as “The Great Pumpkin Waltz,” “Joe Cool,” and “Little Birdy” can easily enhance student learning.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, an annual television event, is enjoyed by millions. The special has been translated into many languages and is seen on TV and home video all over the globe. Vince Guaraldi’s musical contribution to this Peanuts TV special, part of the soundtrack of our lives, has provided such spirit though the years.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. teaches world languages and cultures at New Providence High School. He received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for Outstanding Educational Impact for integrating musicals into the high school curriculum. Dr. Mason has authored numerous articles about musicals in the interdisciplinary curriculum.

Work Cited
Mendelson, Lee, and Bill Melendez. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition. New York: HarperResource, 2000. 

(Credit Peanuts images courtesy of United Feature Syndicate.) 

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