Vince Guaraldi and his music for Charlie Brown cartoons

I first saw the animated versions of Charlie Brown on television back in 1976 at around the age of ten. Some of them actually dated back to a few years; they were originally shown on US television from the mid 60’s. I instantly took to the cartoons and a huge part of their appeal was the music that accompanied them, written and performed by pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi. I made a mental note of his name when I saw it roll up the credits at the end.

From the start there was something different about Charlie Brown that set it apart from other cartoons. Whereas Tom and Jerry and the various from Merry Melodies/Loonee Tunes began with a fanfare and a flurry, the opening of a Charlie Brown cartoon was more subtle and would often see two characters in mid-conversation. The music was in the ‘background’ yet audible enough to capture the viewer’s attention without detracting from the on-screen dialogue. I imagine this was purposely done. The choice of Vince Guaraldi’s music was a canny one. Like the spoken dialogue in the cartoons, the music is sophisticated and subtle, even though it was aimed at a young audience. Adding to the uniqueness of the cartoons is the fact that its main protagonist Charlie Brown has a world-weary, sometimes melancholy character which the music depicts perfectly.

Many of the cartoons had a theme associated with public holidays in the USA. Thus, there’s the famous Christmas one, as well as specials for Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Coinciding with a time when American children would have been off school no doubt added to the sense of occasion; they were also shown during school holidays in the UK. From the 1965 Halloween special, ‘The Great Pumpkin Waltz’ is a favourite.

Another element distinguishes the music of Charlie Brown from its counterparts. In a Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoon, you don’t so much hear full pieces as music as little fragments of tunes that musically depict the dialogue or emotions expressed by the characters, a technique known as ‘tone painting’. This rarely takes place in Vince Guaraldi’s scores; instead you’d get one complete piece of music that sat nonchalantly in the background, rather than brief snatches that imitated each and every action or piece of dialogue.

I had no idea of what kind i.e. style of music it was. I just knew it was something I relished hearing, that was enough. Children tend to be like that, and aren’t self-conscious about what they do and don’t like. I didn’t know the music was ‘jazz’ but it did unknowingly plant the seeds for getting into jazz later on. When I heard pianists such as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, I was reminded of the music I first encountered on Charlie Brown cartoons. Thank Vince Guaraldi for that.


Closedown: The ‘Television Generation’ and the Digital Age compared

I don’t have a television set, haven’t had one for well over a decade – but I retain a fascination for the television programmes of my childhood. I recently found some 1970s editions of the Radio Times and TV Times on the Genome digital archive. Besides the programmes themselves, I was reminded how broadcasting would begin usually no earlier than 9am, and finish a little before after midnight. Then there’d be nothing.

Even during the day, it was quite common to have what they called a ‘Closedown’, e.g. after the 1pm news on BBC1, broadcasting would stop for 3 to 4 hours, and there’d be just the test card. This was true to a lesser extent of ITV also. Apparently, up until the 1960s the BBC used to close down between 7 and 8pm so that parents could put their children to bed! It’s only really when you get to the 80s that you find daytime television being brought in, with shows brought in for breakfast, mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

If you were an adolescent or teen in the 70s, you’re seen now as the ‘television generation’. Yet in truth, for vast swathes of time, nothing was actually on the box. Did that help a young mind to begin to develop a more creative imagination? I think it did. For one thing, it meant you had no choice but to create your own entertainment during the times when there was just the test card for three hours. This isn’t to knock today’s young creatives but this is just how it was. Whilst that era wasn’t as innocent and danger-free as some of us might reminisce, it also wasn’t as hazardous as it is at times depicted. For one thing, we had far more freedom to roam beyond our homes. So we had not only the time to explore our imagination but also the space.

Imagine if the internet ‘closed down’ every night, and at different times of the day. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for, in case the server crashes.