'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' at 50: Collaborators & Children's Singers Talk About His Musical Impact

Mister Rogers
Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images

Fred Rogers on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

It was 50 years ago this past Presidents' Day that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired on your local PBS affiliate.

For over four decades, the gentle and wise Fred Rogers -- who won the Peabody Award, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 and was the recipient of no less than two legislative resolves for his groundbreaking work in children’s programming -- nurtured three generations of kids with his superhuman senses of kindness, empathy and altruism. Yet for all the strides Mister Rogers took prior to succumbing to stomach cancer fifteen years ago on Feb. 27, 2003 (and whose legacy continues to thrive and educate in the form of the excellent animated spin-off of his Neighborhood of Make Believe segment, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood), it was the one-time monastery student’s deep passion for music that served as perhaps the prime mover of the series; especially when you speak in the context of his own nature as a songwriter, composer and musician. Often backed by the show’s musical director, legendary Pittsburgh area pianist Johnny Costa, Rogers wrote over 289 songs over the course of the show’s run and released a number of LPs, all of which sadly remain out of print.

His songs were simple, sweet and sincere, their themes echoing the sentiments and lessons of the show. Starting with 1968’s Let’s Be Together, the albums were pressed in house by his company and featured a small ensemble of personnel that included fellow on-air talent as David Newell (who played the speedy delivery mailman Mister McFeely), Betty Aberlin (who played Lady Aberlin in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segments) and guitarist Joe Negri (whose recurring music shop segment as Handyman Negri featured such iconic names as Yo-Yo Ma, Kenny Burrell and Wynton Marsalis) in addition to the Costa Trio. Rogers sang like he spoke, in that reedy, grandfatherly tone so endearing to all of us who watched his show. When paired with Costa’s dizzying, daring variations on the cocktail jazz idiom, that conversational tunefulness helped many of us gain an appreciation of different types of music while teaching us lessons on how to be better human beings.

“This is what I give,” Rogers told Rhode Island Senator John Pastore in a 1969 senate hearing on Lyndon Johnson’s $20 million grant funding PBS, which a then-newly elected Richard Nixon was threatening to cut from the budget. “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”

Throughout this year, the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is being celebrated in the form of a documentary called Won't You Be My Neighbor that was recently showcased at Sundance and will be released nationally in June; a tribute special airing on PBS entitled Mister Rogers: It's You I Like; and You Are My Friend, a new feature film currently in the works chronicling the friendship between Mister Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) and writer Tom Junod, who was assigned to cover the program for Esquire in 1998. March 23, meanwhile, will see the United States Postal Service issue a stamp in his honor. As a special way to honor the legacy of this genuine angel who walked among us on earth for 74 years, Billboard has gathered together some of the biggest names in children’s music, along with some of Fred Rogers’ closest collaborators, to talk about the impact his distinctive style of songwriting and composition had on the art of entertaining American kids through music. 

Lisa Loeb:
I was always moved that Mister Rogers was able to write such melodic classics with a message that spoke directly to us as people, and made me feel safe and engaged as a child.  The theme song to the show, "It’s Such a Good Feeling,” and “You Are Special” are some of my favorites. I’ve always wanted to cover “You Are Special”; it is the perfect intersection of a standard from the American Songbook meeting a song of encouragement for kids. 

Meredith LeVande:
Parents often ask me where programs like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood have gone, and why these types of shows are virtually nowhere to be found. My answer is that children's content is created very differently than it was when shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were developed. Children's content today is produced in what scholars have defined as an ecosystem, where licensing, merchandising, and international sales all have to converge. Although cartoons and commercial content existed when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired, the decision to create children's programming didn't hinge on all these other variables the way it does now. Content was also more localized unlike today where children's shows are highly globalized. Academic journals have noted that out of all television content produced, it is children's content that is one of the most globalized forms of content that exists within an ecosystem comprised of multinational broadcasters, licensing companies, and retail stores. Even the most educational television shows on virtually all networks are predominantly animated because cartoon characters are easier to turn into merchandise than actual people. Moreover, the content is usually designed to sell to as many countries as possible and cartoons are the easiest format to facilitate this. Local, live-action, children's content doesn't readily lend itself to this business model. For example, cartoon characters are easily dubbed into several languages, and a U.S.-based actual person might not resonate in other parts of the world.  Based on these factors, children’s content producers are creating less adult-driven local content created in the vein of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. 

Dan Zanes:
One of the things I noticed when my daughter was born in 1994 was how much children’s entertainment was based on being ironic and snarky; like talking back to parents, putting on a front. Then I really started to read about Mister Rogers and revisit those shows and really look at what he was up to. It was calm and I can appreciate that he was coming from a real place. I undoubtedly believed every word he said. I did a lot of reading on him because I was thinking about my own approach to children’s music and the trajectory of what I wanted it to look like. And I felt as though he was not unlike Raffi. I always felt like Raffi had a sincerity about him that I felt was very right with children. But it was a sincerity that was organic. I don’t think either one of those guys were stainless steel; they were more like driftwood. They were very natural and organic, and I appreciated that. I think the stuff that’s a little too smoothed out and shiny doesn’t feel like life. So I appreciated the way Mister Rogers looked at things and took on some hard stuff. I couldn’t vibe with it as a kid, but I greatly appreciated it as a parent. I know for myself as a songwriter until I began playing children’s music, I struggled with being emotional in a real way, not a cooked up way like how I thought Dion and the Belmonts were doing. I would always try to get near something on an emotional level and then back away. But to see somebody do it without flinching and just go at it really helped me as a songwriter when I got interested in writing for families. 

David Newell, aka Mister McFeely the Mailman on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:
Hoagy Carmichael’s son worked for us and we had done a program with his father. It was explaining how he composed “Stardust” and things of that nature. Fred, being a musician and pianist himself, found it fascinating. It was part of a series we did in the late '70s called Old Friends…New Friends that aired in the evening on PBS. It was a half-hour program a week and it was devoted to musicians and actors and philosophers, and the theme running through the program was what the young can learn from the old and the old from the young. And I remember Hoagy trying to teach Fred how to do these crash chords on the piano. If you listen to “Stardust,” in the beginning of the song you’ll hear these crash chords. And that was what he was demonstrating to Fred on this program among other things, because both of them hit it off so well being pianists and musicians. And I definitely feel like there was elements of Hoagy Carmichael, George & Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter in the way Fred wrote his songs. I think the music, in all my years I’ve worked with Fred, the music is what kept Fred going. It was the soul of the program. He loved writing music and the songs for the program more than anything. 

Joe Negri, Handyman Negri on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and renowned jazz guitarist:
In my shop on the show, where most of the music segments took place, the artists were always first class. The Yo-Yo Ma appearance was my absolute favorite. I was in such awe of him and he was just so nice and warm and easy to work with. He told us a funny story about getting on an airplane with his Stratovarius cello. And the stewardess had the nerve to say, ‘Well you’re going to have to put that in with the luggage.’ And he went, ‘Are you kidding? This cello is worth more than your airplane!' So he bought a seat for his cello.

But in regard to Fred, he always had a good way of laying down a melody. He was a composition major at a school in Woodland Park, FL. And he played the piano down there a bit, not great but functional. So his songs were written very basically. Harmonically, they were just simple 1-4-5 chords, almost like folk songs. And whenever Johnny Costa or I would get a hold of these songs, we would totally enrich them, which gave them that jazz quality you heard on the program. And that was because we were using a lot more colors and embellishment of chords and harmonies, which gave his songs a real jazz feeling and made them hipper sounding. 

Ladysmith Black Mambazo:
The children are our future. It is the responsibility of parents and all adults to fill children with positive messages and positive ways of thinking. It is often said that children's minds are like sponges, soaking everything up. If this is so and we believe it is true, then why must society cause such harm to our children? We must fill them with beauty, with positive messages, with music and art and information that will instill in them a sense of helping each other, a sense of possibility and peace and love. This is what we try to do. We sing songs of peace and love, songs to bring people together. We want all children to have this message as part of their daily lives, just like Fred Rogers used to do.

Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd, Jr., Alphabet Rockers:
Two things we love about Mister Rogers are not only his love of imagination, but his true respect for the brilliance of children. In the creation of our Grammy-nominated album, Rise Shine #Woke, which brings language around racism, power and self-identity to our youngest, Alphabet Rockers had to do a lot of reflection on how to tell this story. We wondered how we could encourage families to do this work with us. Would people be afraid of this work with their kids?? We watched Fred's Congressional hearing speech and saw that it was both his clear vision and his confidence that made it so undeniably easy to support him. We modeled the way we spoke to families with this pattern of vision, expertise and confidence. We continue to challenge ourselves in this way to envision the best programming for our children and families, with their brilliance at the core.

Justin Roberts:
As a child of the 70s, I grew up watching Mister Rogers explore his eclectic neighborhood and speak to the screen as if he was talking directly to me. The thing I didn't realize at the time was how radical this soft spoken, quiet television show really was. Not only was he introducing his audience to his diverse world of neighbors, he was also taking on big feelings like sadness, anger, fear, and even grief and teaching his young audience how to experience them in a healthy way. This certainly influenced me. I've written songs about 'butterflies' on the first day of school, being lost in a mall, and even the death of a loved one. I'm certain that the longing to explore not only the joy and innocence of childhood but the tough stuff as well comes from those quiet moments of validation that Mister Rogers offered me and his millions of viewers. 

Laurie Berkner:
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of the shows I watched most as a kid. I have some very strong memories of various parts of the program, but the one episode I remember the most was when he spent the entire time in The Neighborhood of Make-Believe as an opera. There was something that transported me to another world when the story was told through music all in a make-believe land. I have often thought about how magical that episode felt to me, while creating songs (especially for musicals) for kids. While I watched Mister Rogers a lot as a child, it wasn’t really until I was an adult that I realized how important the messages in his music were. I found that I really resonated with his way of communicating with kids -- by looking at things from their perspective. The first time I really listened to the song “It’s You I Like” and took in all of the words and their meaning, was as an adult. I cried when I heard it. After hearing that song I was truly inspired to follow my own instincts and write music that validates kids and their experiences.  -

Andrew & Polly, Ear Snacks Podcast:
Mister Rogers has a been a huge influence on the media we create for children. Sometimes when we're working on Ear Snacks, our podcast for kids, we'll even ask ourselves "What would Mister Rogers do?" We often ask ourselves that when we're interviewing a guest - whether it's a well-known public figure like Guy Raz, Lisa Loeb or John Baldessari or a four-year-old with a broken arm. We think back to the episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood that we saw when we were kids, the same episodes that we now watch with our own children. That show is so great for young children. There's much media available for kids today but those old episodes really still hold up.

Jessica “Culture Queen” Smith:
Growing up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was such an entertaining yet calming memory from my childhood. I loved his simple approach to sharing his imagination while approaching teachable moments with children. My children’s show “Black History Live with Culture Queen” uses a similar approach of breaking the “fourth wall” by speaking directly to the royal children to welcome and engage them in my Culture Kingdom. Once there, there’s no limit to the aspects of Black History that we can explore through music, movement and storytelling! What I loved most about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the live, beautifully played jazz piano that underscored the show. The easy listening jazz songs added a sense of pure magic and tranquility to my experience as a child viewer. I actually still listen to it as an adult!  I really respected the fact that Mister Rogers didn’t feel the need to have a modern “pop” sound to appeal to his young audiences. The warm-fuzzy music totally fit his gentle character! Watching this inspired me to use a variety of music that stays true to my persona as Culture Queen. Thanks, Mister Rogers for setting the standard! 

Randy Kaplan:
So ... Mister Rogers. I actually think of him every day and sing his theme song to any of my teaching colleagues or students who walk by my locker as I’m changing from my snow boots to my loafers. I watched the show growing up in the ‘70s. His authenticity, honesty, and gentleness inspired me as a child, and his courage, dedication, and concern for the well-being of children continue to inspire me as an adult. Our styles are very different. He famously sings a song about it being impossible for a kid to go down the bathtub drain while I — not quite as famously — sing a song about a lost shark coming up out of the bathtub drain. I’m sure each song has frightened a kid or two, but overall, I gather Mister Rogers and I have increased the hygiene level by inspiring kids to bathe. Fred Rogers might be seen as corny by today’s standards, but kids could use a public figure like him these days, someone who’s not bombarding them with tricks and effects and jokes (I plead guilty on all counts!) but rather soothing them, educating them, and centering them. Fred Rogers was easy to parody (he supposedly enjoyed the great Eddie Murphy skit on SNL) but those of us with hearts can’t help but revere him. As Loudon Wainwright III sings in his song about Fred Rogers’s death: “Courage, kindness, pride: I felt them all around me ... the day Fred Rogers died. And we mocked King Friday the Thirteenth on Saturday Night Live, but once I started crying, it was pretty hard to drive.” 

Mister G:
At the age of three, I was diagnosed with a serious hip disease which kept me from walking for two years. As a hyperactive boy bedridden in traction, I was much in need of comfort and inspiration. Mister Rogers provided both. His grandfatherly, folksy demeanor was a constant, reassuring presence, as were his songs which helped pacify some of my fears. It was certainly a relief to know that whether or not I'd ever be able to walk again, at least I'd never go down the drain. Now, as a children's songwriter and educator myself, I recognize that Mister Rogers profoundly informed my outlook to the craft. It's no small feat to write songs which are catchy and appealing while simultaneously imparting an educational component. Fred was a pioneer of this particular type of song craft. Using humor as a vehicle for teaching values is another legacy of Mister Rogers -- and one which I try to emulate in my own songs for kids. 

Joanie Leeds:
Mister Rogers Neighborhood was one of the two shows I was allowed to watch when I was little, and from the moment Mister Rogers confidently walked through the door and changed into his sweater and sneakers, I was glued to the TV singing along at the top of my lungs to "Won't You Be My Neighbor."  I don't dress like Fred Rogers during my performances (I wear heels and tutu skirts at my shows), but like my sweater-wearing childhood hero I write songs about compassion, positive messages, kindness and believing in yourself. Fred seemed to never run out of material and was as prolific as he was talented. I've written eight albums for kids so far, and after a while it can be difficult to come up with new topics. Not Fred! All of his songs were inspiring and timeless. I can attest to this first hand, as I play them for my two-year-old daughter, and she's a fan too! The thing I admire the most about Fred Rogers is he never spoke down to kids on his show and with his music. He didn't need shtick or to dumb it down to appeal to his audience or fans. He was himself, and he asked his audience to be themselves too.

Steve Denyes of Hullabaloo:
The music of Fred Rogers is really unique in how direct and literal it is. He says exactly what he wants to say. He doesn’t dress up his message in a story and a lot of imagery the way most of us kids musicians do these days. If his song title is “It’s You I Like,” you can bet the lyrics aren’t going to leave you guessing how he feels about you. I recently wrote a song called “You Are Loved” that is very Fred-Rogers-esque. The words are simple and direct. . . “You are good, you are strong and you are loved by me.” The response to this very simple song has been overwhelming. Several people have reached out to tell me that they sing it to their child every night before they go to sleep. One grandmother wrote me a note explaining that her entire family sang “You Are Loved” to her husband moments before he passed away. I get teary-eyed just thinking about that. And, it’s just further confirmation that Fred Rogers knew exactly what he was doing. There’s something really powerful about saying exactly what you mean in a direct and sincere way.

Angela Santomero, creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood:
I’m his number one fan, and it makes me so happy to see there’s such a surge for Mister Rogers given Daniel Tiger’s success. We use covers of his original songs as these launching pads for our episodes. For instance, we do these little musical strategies and they’re part of the curriculum. And some are directly inspired by his songs, like “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel.” That was literally the song lyric he said to the Senate back in 1969. We use that song and we turned it around to make it a little bit stickier for our audience. So we changed it to, “If you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath and count to four.” But then at the end of the show, we do a one-minute cover of “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel” and we changed some of the lyrics to keep it as current as possible. But obviously the entire feel is Fred. So those are my favorite moments, when we take his work and elevate it to the next generation. So hopefully, through Daniel, his music will live on forever.