By Paige Bostic
Since the beginning of October, and now well into November, "The Great Pumpkin Waltz" is once again soaring in popularity on Spotify, and for good reason. It’s a sweet, nostalgic waltz that reminds many of us of being little kids watching It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! Songs from this special, like “Linus and Lucy” and “Snoopy and the Leaf,” are auditory motifs of the autumn season, and for good reason! The composer of many of my favorite Peanuts specials, Vince Guaraldi, was a talented jazz and bossa nova musician both within and outside his work with Charles Schultz. While his work may not be as widespread as, say, stadium rock, his stylings are just as awe-inspiring.
What is Peanuts Without Vince Guaraldi?
As a 1% listener on his Spotify profile, I consider myself a devoted acolyte of Guaraldi, much to the chagrin of my friends and family who could otherwise enjoy quietly watching the Peanuts specials without my constant chatter of “This is the second reprise of the waltz!” or “You should hear the alternate reprise take to the Charlie Brown theme!” Guaraldi broke into the Peanuts world by knocking it out of the park on his first swing at the bat: he composed “Linus and Lucy” for an unaired Peanuts documentary aptly titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Take a minute to reflect on that; the only material Guaraldi had to work with was the physical Peanuts comic strips, and he nevertheless composed a song that everybody knows. While his music is now a nostalgic comfort, the addition of Guaraldi’s music to the Peanuts specials, beginning with A Charlie Brown Christmas, was a bold move for the Peanuts producers–especially when it came to the already daring Christmas special.
While contemporary specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman were marketed as warm-and-fuzzy Christmas stories, A Charlie Brown Christmas treats its primarily juvenile audience with respect by encouraging them to question the commercialization of the holiday season. Peanuts could have cut corners by using a simple, dinky soundtrack under the premise that kids can’t appreciate good music–but they didn’t. By utilizing the talent of Vince Guaraldi, they added a new character to the Peanuts repertoire: the music. From the tender, childlike patter of the “Skating” theme to the plodding gait of his “O Tannenbaum” cover, the Charlie Brown Christmas album is an old friend taking you by the hand and leading you through a forest of evergreen trees. In blending his own compositions with his interpretations of the classics, Guaraldi created classics of his own. Who doesn’t feel a flicker of remembrance when they hear “Christmastime is Here?” Guaraldi’s soundtrack was the hopeful heartbeat of the aching story.
Guaraldi stepped into the murky, problem-riddled life of one Charlie Brown and kept his hope alive with musical stylings that adults and children can both enjoy. By employing the likes of Guaraldi, the producers of Peanuts treated their audiences with respect by providing them with a restrained, subtle, yet masterfully done soundtrack. Guaraldi’s work continued through the Halloween special that I sincerely hope you’ll be watching this month: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
Guaraldi’s work on the Great Pumpkin special built on his auditory trademark of gentle subtlety, but played to a mischievous aspect to complement the immortal sentiment that is Spooky Season. “Linus and Lucy” started off the special, this time accompanied by a fluttering flute courtesy of Ronnie Lang (better known for his musical contributions in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). The silliness of the soundtrack continued with the kitschy “Graveyard Theme”, and the airy “Snoopy and the Leaf.” The music accompanied Snoopy on his famous journey in this special–“Breathless” follows Snoopy as the World War 1 flying ace sneaking across the French countryside, and Schroeder’s cover of the British marching tune “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” reduced poor Snoopy to a pile of tears. In a way, the music of The Great Pumpkin was like Snoopy’s friend (and my favorite character), the little bird Woodstock, functioning as a subtly silly side character whose performance complements and augments the portrayal of the boisterous beagle.
Guaraldi’s work with Peanuts was a little less iconic after The Great Pumpkin. Fewer, less popular holiday specials aired, but nevertheless, the music maintained its character. As the personalities of the Peanuts cast came to life, Guaraldi amassed a list of themes for many characters beyond Linus and Lucy. Both Charlie and Sally Brown have their own blues themes, Frieda has a plunking hymn to her curly red hair, and Schroeder, Lucy’s beloved piano player, has his own gentle portrait. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) introduced an ode to Woodstock, aptly titled “Little Birdie.” A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is a perfect example of Guaraldi’s smooth transition to the musical trends at the time–the overall soundtrack is a little funkier than its older siblings from the ‘60s, featuring more electric keyboards and the Moog. Guaraldi’s adaptability, distinct character, and pride in his work, made him an integral cog of the PCU (Peanuts cinematic universe), deserving of as much love as Snoopy or Charlie Brown or (shudder) Lucy.
Beyond the World of Charlie Brown
The wild, lucrative success of A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! enabled Guaraldi to fulfill the musician’s dream of playing music for the love of it. Beyond his work with Schulz, Guaraldi collaborated with other jazz musicians to create an impressive repertoire of his own work as well as collaborations with other celebrated musicians. His work with Brazilian-born Djama de Andrade (better known as Bola Sete), explored the bossa nova genre through the albums From All Sides and Vince and Bola which were collections of covers of bossa standards as well as reimaginings of movie soundtracks and contemporary pop songs. Guaraldi had a love of Latin jazz, as explored in his albums Alma-Ville and The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi. With the success of the Peanuts franchise, Guaraldi was able to support his love affair with jazz music, playing live for pleasure and recording more eclectic albums.
The playful stylings of the mustachioed musician evolved with time, from his cool West Coast jazz beginnings to his experimentations with bossa nova and Latin jazz, to fusion jazz that united ‘70s funk with the genres he held so dear. A performer to the end, Guaraldi’s last set was performed hours before his sudden death in 1976 was a shock to the jazz community. His last song he played was his spin on “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles to a club in the Bay Area before he experienced a heart attack hours later. His sudden death sent ripples through the community that he had worked closely with, from fellow musicians to the Peanuts family.
A Legacy of Loyalty and Love
The works of Vince Guaraldi, from his work with a boy named Charlie Brown to his more diverse cross-genre stylings, comfortably settled him as a figurehead of West Coast and Latin jazz communities–a pioneer who brought quality music to child and adult audiences. The subdued soundtracks he provided to the Peanuts specials fizzled with a playful maturity that acted alongside the main cast as a staple character as unforgettable as Snoopy or Charlie Brown. His ever-shifting rotation of bandmates never changed the trademark Guaraldi feel of his music, and his loyalty to the Peanuts franchise was unwavering. Guaraldi never strayed far from his musical home in the Bay Area, rejecting offers from other studios to produce soundtracks for other cartoons. As a result, Peanuts’ sound was irreplaceable, unable to be found anywhere else. While his life was ultimately short, Guaraldi provided unforgettable contributions to the jazz world and a distinct flavor to a franchise beloved by millions. Though he is no unsung hero, Guaraldi deserves credit for the musical contributions he provided to our childhoods and our now-adulthoods. So keep the composer on your mind next time you watch a special with Snoopy and the gang and maybe lend a stream or two to pay respects to a truly groundbreaking musician.