Rowlf has never been one of the more popular Muppets, despite been one of the first created. Sure, if I asked you to name ten Muppets, Rowlf’s name would probably turn up. But he never was a leading player like Kermit and Miss. Piggy, and he doesn’t get the love that Animal and Beaker do. But deep in the Muppets back catalogue is a piece of solo work that is greater than any other Muppet character could produce.
So, who is Rowlf the dog? His character is a supporting player in the Muppet’s troupe, normally seen tinkling the ivories, mostly in cameo roles in the later Muppet work (though he did have the best back story in the latest Muppets movie).
The best back story in the entire film
Rowlf is something of a piano man (or piano dog), the kind you’d imagine slumped over a piano in a smoky bar, playing for whoever put money in his jar. It’s been said Rowlf was a pastiche of early Tom Waits- the epitome of a grizzled troubadour, though Rowlf came before Tom Waits.
Rowlf fits the piano man stereotype and the original series used him as such. He performed standards that got interrupted, duets with the guests, and wonderful little comic numbers:
With these credentials it was decided that Rowlf should release an album. The resulting album is something that would suit no other Muppet character and it hit a high that transcends its Muppet origins.
In 1993 the album Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back was released. Jim Henson, in character as Rowlf, sings 14 songs and we get the concert banter between. The premise of the album is that it’s a recording of Rowlf doing a gig. Like the old troubadour he is, he talks over his piano, introducing songs and cracking wry jokes.
It’s surprising how much range Rowlf covers in the course of the album. As in The Muppets Show, Rowlf sings comic songs, like I Never Harmed An Onion. The first three tracks are all these comic songs, but then we hit Halfway Up The Stairs. Over the gentle introduction, Rowlf calls it “One of Kermit’s nephew’s favourite songs” and sings a genuinely tender version of the song. Who would have expected this of a Muppet?
Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back has some moving songs and gets a touch melancholic at times. His It’s Not Easy Being Green may be better than Kermit singing it.
The album mixes upbeat and melancholic. You wouldn’t expect such a feeling of sadness from what’s supposed to be a kid’s album. But it’s beautiful. Unlike any other character, Rowlf really does sing like a dog that’s been around and seen it all, and that’s what moves it from been a fun little Muppets album to an album that I’d put on my Desert Island Discs. All great albums cover more than one feeling, which is what Rowlf does.
Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back was released back in 1993, so tracking down a CD copy is very difficult and very pricey. The album can’t be found for download on iTunes. The album has never received the attention or recognition it rightly deserves. It’s not just a great Muppets album, but a great album in its own right.
With increased interest in The Muppets due to the film, I can only hope renewed interest leads people to Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back. It’s a beautiful hidden gem. So until it becomes available as a legal download, you can listen to the album via Youtube. Tap your toes to Carbon Copy, giggle at Eight Little Notes, dry your eyes to Wishing Song, and enjoy this overlooked masterpiece.
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