The Muppets and rocks stars have always been natural allies. Everyone from Debbie Harry to Alice Cooper appeared on The Muppet Show to rock out with the band of misfits known as the Muppets. The Muppets and other characters created by Jim Henson have credibly covered everything from The Beastie Boys to Nirvana to Queen. This month marks the anniversary of Jim Henson’s death in 1990. Henson was ill with pneumonia for less than 24 hours when he unexpectedly passed away at just age 53. Since then, a number of musicians have covered Henson songs. Henson’s songs were not written from the perspective of an artist who died before his time, but when you listen to them with awareness of Henson’s eventual fate, they have extra poignancy. The music of Jim Henson elevated his children’s characters to something universal — “all of us under its spell, we know that it’s probably magic.” These seven covers of Henson’s best songs represent the duality of Henson’s music – the melancholy and fragile hope that exist in every person, along with a healthy dose of fun.
“Rainbow Connection” – Willie Nelson, The Dixie Chicks
39 years ago, Jim Henson’s The Muppet Movie took the beloved puppets to the big screen. As the opening credits played, Kermit sang the song “Rainbow Connection” while plucking his banjo. The song became iconic and received both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination (but did not win). The song got as high as #35 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and have appeared in many other Muppet and Henson projects. Dozens of artists have covered the tune, including Karen Carpenter and Jason Mraz. Willie Nelson’s unplugged version of the song comes closest to capturing the wistful longing of Kermit’s original version. The Dixie Chicks also added the song to their collection of winsome cover tunes.
“The Muppet Show Theme” – OK Go
OK Go got a kick out of “The Muppet Show Theme” so they recorded it backstage at the Jay Leno Show when the Muppets appeared with Andrea Bocelli in 2009. Eventually their cover was added to The Green Album, released in 2011, and the song was also made into a music video, with appearances with several Henson characters.
“The First Time It Happens” – Seth McFarlane
Producer, writer and director Seth MacFarlane has a side-career where he fancies himself as a lounge singer. He released an album of swing standards in 2017, In Full Swing, which covers the song “The First Time It Happens” from The Great Muppet Caper. The song is given the full Sinatra treatment with orchestra.
“Mahna Mahna” – The Fray
The song “Mahna Mahna” is always associated with the Muppets so it may come as a shock to learn that it’s actually, “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” song by Italian composer Piero Umiliani. The song first appeared in the Italian film Sweden: Heaven and Hell. The movie made it a minor radio hit in the U.S. and in Britain, where it was also used in a recurring sketch on The Red Skelton Show. The Muppets first used the song in 1969 and it became a big hit. The Fray covered the song for the Disney/Muppets Compilation The Green Album.
“Our World” – My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket recorded a cover of “Our World” which is a song from the 1977 Muppets Christmas special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The most underrated of Henson products, “Our World” is a song that reflects Henson’s deeply held belief in treating all people with respect (“some say our world’s getting too small / I say with kindness, ‘there’s room for us all’”). Morning Jacket’s modern folk style is well-suited to the simple arrangements favored by Henson.
“I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” – Rachael Yamagata
Rachael Yamagata’s cover of “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” uses a swelling orchestra to adorn Gonzo’s immensely sad song from The Muppet Movie. The song is a Kenny Ascher-Paul Williams composition that sees its protagonist realizing her dreams and then having the dreams fail. Yamagata captures some of the heartbreak of the original, lending the vocals a heavily-Fiona Apple huskiness. For extra sads, go on a google search for the version of this song that played at Jim Henson’s memorial service.