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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2022


This article explores Joan La Barbara's appearance on Sesame Street with ‘The Signing Alphabet’ (1977) to engage her artistic commitments to accessibility and collaboration. The piece is an alphabet song rendered through vocal improvisation against an animation of the American Manual Alphabet by Steve Finkin. It plays with the relationships between sound, alphabets, learning and literacy, reaching new listening publics: children and their caregivers. Through the visibility it offers Deaf culture, the work generates frames through which to hear La Barbara's voice and see the limitations of her vocal extensions. The piece reveals other paths for new music in the 1970s, placing La Barbara's creativity in the context of educational programing aimed at normalising difference, especially in the context of disability, race and class. Sesame Street and Joan La Barbara, I suggest, imbue vocal extension and exploration with an ethos of care.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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8 American Sesame Street teaches phonetic writing systems, like English and Spanish, in attempts to present linguistic diversity in the US. A 2013 series nurturing Mandarin learning, ‘Fun Fun Elmo’, teaches characters and tones to encourage literacy in the logographic writing system. These segments are modelled after the English alphabet lessons.

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12 In a similar manner, La Barbara keeps her left hand moving as she performs. As she told Ryan Dohoney in an un-published interview, ‘The left-hand when I'm singing: I just let it be. I let it do whatever it's going to do. Like, it has a mind of its own’ (email exchange with Ryan Dohoney, 26 January 2022). See also Dohoney's piece in this issue.

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