October 17, 2008

What's The Story With The Four-Armed Swami Counting To Twenty?

Alright, so I'm a little obsessed with what is admittedly my favorite old school Sesame Street animation ever: the four-armed swami counting to 20. But what can I do? To this day, I don't say "Once, doce, trece, catorce" in my head; I sing them. And to a sitar accompaniment.

Once it came back onto YouTube, I started looking at the 1971 animation through grown-up eyes, and I realized it's really quite beautiful. The version above is the cleanest copy I've found to date [The versions linked in previous DT posts have all disappeared from the YouTube, but it's always there; just search for "sesame street guru" or "sesame street swami." It's also included on Disc 2 of the Sesame Street Old School, Vol 1 DVD.]

I find it kind of maddening and borderline irresponsible that Children's Television Workshop, aka Sesame Workshop doesn't do more for their legacy and the artists who helped create such memorable elements of our culture.

There's not even a definitive title and production credit published for the swami clip, for example. So here's what I've pieced together from various message boards and comment threads. What follows is either fascinating or a complete waste of time, depending:

"Sesame Street Swami" debuted November 8, 1971 in Episode 276, the first show in the 'Street's third season, in both English and Spanish. The version above, posted by YouTube user turkeytv, is the only one to mention a title, "Mystic Twenty."

A commenter on this version, gives the music credits:

Jeannie Piersol -Vocals
Darby Slick - Guitar
Peter van Gelder -Sitar

The three were supposedly in The Great Society together, a seminal Haight Ashbury band, but that makes no sense, because The Great Society was founded in 1965 by Darby Slick's brother Jerry and Jerry's wife Grace, and only lasted like a year before Grace jumped to Jefferson Airplane. Van Gelder was a student of the great Ali Akbar Khan and one of the pioneers of introducing sitar music to the west. I should say "is," not "was"; van Gelder's still kickin' it Indian school in Sonoma.

But wait, in Craig Fenton's 2006 fan bible, Take Me to a Circus Tent: The Jefferson Airplane Flight Manual, Jerry Slick talked about producing "Jazzy Spies" in November 1969, the classic Sesame Street counting series which, of course, includes his then-famous-and-estranged wife Grace Slicks' voiceover. Then he added this:

I did other Sesame Street with music by three former members of The Great Society--Darby, Peter on sitar, and vocals by Jeannie Piersol [?], who rehearsed with the Great Society in the very beginning, but decided to be a mom instead. Sad, 'cause Grace really liked singing with her.
Though she's called Jeannie here, the other mentions on Fenton's book are to Jennie Piersol.

An animation thread on Muppetcentral.com says "Jeff [sic] and Darby Slick" produced the four-armed guru segment, and that Darby wrote the music.

That same 2003 thread credits the swami animation to the San Francisco-based studio that produced so many iconic shorts for Sesame Street, Electric Company and other shows, Imagination, Inc., owned by Jeffrey Hale. Imagination, Inc. also did "Jazzy Spies" and "Pinball Number Count."

Sesame Street Swami - 3

The designs of this body of Imagination, Inc. animation are awesome and would make incredible murals in a nursery. Or bedding, even. I don't know. But just imagine a wall filled with the swami morphed into flowers, or with the trippy backgrounds from the numbers, or maybe with a crisply redrawn black and white counting contraption. Are Sesame's licensing execs asleep at the wheel?

After several years on the farthest back burner I've got, I thought I had a breakthrough last night when Jonathan Hoefler linked to the NY Public Library's digital gallery. There I found an 1868 lithograph design portfolio called The grammar of ornament : illustrated by examples from various styles of ornament, one hundred and twelve plates. There are no exact matches, but the Egyptian, Persian, and [duh] Indian patterns are remarkably similar to the ones in the swami animation. I expect the designs Imagination, Inc. used will turn up in a similar 19th c. pattern book somewhere.


So I grabbed all the swami backgrounds and posted them to flickr in the hopes that someone will eventually be able to identify the original source of the designs. If you have any 19th century ornament portfolios, I hope you'll check them for psychedelic hippie inspiration.

Sesame Street Counting Swami backgrounds photoset [daddytypes flickr stream]


This is my favourite post of yours. It's a gift.

Great video and fantastic post!

This was and is my favorite Sesame Street music video. I still get all weepy.


Great post. I'd forgotten about the counting swami, so it was a big flashback to see him again. I'm gonna spend this weekend showing all the old Sesame Street videos to my K1. Also, Jozet, "Lowercase n" was my favorite too growing up!

Nice post.

I'm reminded of Dee Lite's "Groove is in the Heart" which samples the Swami:


Good times.

Love the classic Sesame Street posts! I was one again reminded of my own favorite, "Me and My Llama," wherein a girl takes her llama to the dentist.

Llama. To the dentist. What on earth were the CTN people smoking back then? I get this godforsaken song in my head at least once a week:


Oh my goodness, thank you for this. Wow. My 3.5 year old loves the "Swami 20" ... we sing it in the car, the grocery store aisles, whenever we're counting, really. And now she'll know exactly who she can thank for teaching her to count to 20.

I just found this video on YouTube a few minutes ago - I've been searching for it for years! (OK, maybe not searching for it for years, but I've never forgotten the melody since I heard it as a kid, it's unspeakably gorgeous.)

And then I found your post. Thank you so much for the research! And how cool is it that Jerry Slick produced both this as the "Jazzy Spies" theme? How much weed were they smoking at the CTW back then??

Thank you for posting this. The swami brings back such happy memories. I just love it when people my age chime in when I start singing the swami count song.

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