Behind the Meaning of the Song “Barbecue” by Paul Williams

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Well, ladies and gents, it’s Memorial Day.

For many of you, today is the first day when you bust out your charcoal or gas grill, fire it up and taste the delight of a hot dog or burger from the fire.

And if you’re like me, one of your favorite songs about the said event is the delightful tune, “Barbecue,” from the Jim Henson classic, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas. While it’s a Christmas movie, its central song doesn’t have to be.

Here, we will go behind the meaning of the song and its origins, to show you exactly why. But first, let’s have a listen to the excellent and fun track:

Origins

“Barbecue” was written by the legendary songwriter Paul Williams, who is also the President and chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). It was written for the holiday special, which first aired in 1977.

Williams, who has written many incredible works throughout his lengthy career, in a way got his musical start with The Muppets, and later, after dealing with addiction and low points in his life, credits The Muppets for revitalizing his career and even saving his life. (American Songwriter talked with Williams about just that, which you can read all about HERE and HERE.)

Early in his career, one of Williams’ first assignments with The Muppets was to write the music for their then-new Christmas special, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas. It’s a story about a widowed mother and her young son trying to get each other a gift for the holiday season. It’s a musical, adorable, and truly a perfect classic film for the season.

It also centers largely on the song “Barbecue.”

Paul Williams on “Barbecue”

In talking with Williams earlier, American Songwriter asked him about the song, which not only had to be great but had to fit the story and the characters within it. And here is what he said:

American Songwriter: Tell us about the great song, “Barbecue”?

Paul Williams: My favorite line in there is, ‘Barbecue / Lifts my spirits / I swear it never fails /And the sauce mama makes will stay there forever if you dare to get it under your nails.’ That’s straight out of my childhood. My dad was a construction worker who was working from job to job to job and there were our Sunday picnics for all the construction workers and all. Always barbecue and sauce that was just deadly. It was so delicious, but a spot of my mom’s barbecue sauce on a white t-shirt would be there for the life of that t-shirt. You could never quite get it out. 

When I sit down to write a song and I’m writing the song by myself, it’s always a ‘play well with others’ situation. Because I love the characters that I’m writing for. How could you not love Ma and Emmet? The thing is that’s all so wonderful about those jobs, those songs and those characters is that there are pieces of this show that will stay with me forever. They become part of our family lexicon. 

If we see some absolute ass on television doing something just rude and dangerous and these days that happens a bunch, you can’t believe how stunningly cruel someone will be. We’ll look at each other and say, ‘He seems nice…'[Laughs]. Like Charlie in the treehouse, ‘He seems nice.’ And the line, ‘Do you think they got mashed potatoes?” is part of the family lexicon. It’s like if we have to make an adjustment and we’re not doing something we wanted to do but we’re going to do something else, we say, ‘Think they’ve got mashed potatoes?’ It just becomes a part of your life. But I think the relationship—the ‘plays well with others’—may be an edge of a kind of madness but it’s so wonderfully playful to be writing songs for these characters. They’re right there with me while we’re writing. But that’s the sort of thing if you’d admit to, there was a time that they’d lock you up.

The Song’s Meaning

In the holiday movie, the song is rehearsed and rehearsed in order to win a local talent contest, which will then give Emmet and his friends enough money to buy presents for their loved ones.

But the song itself is just so great, even beyond the motivation in the movie.

It’s about the joy a good meal can give someone. How that, itself, is priceless—especially when enjoyed with friends and even a little flirtation.

It’s the type of song a group of friends may even want to learn together to play on a day like Memorial Day to celebrate the meal—and the BBQ sauce that can’t help but sometimes get stuck under your fingernails. Ribs, anyone?

It’s written as an F-major blues line and is done perfectly with a guitar, banjo, washtub bass, and a kazoo. Try it out next time you want to play something fun at mealtime.

Just look at these guys:

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