Behind The Song: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Before every episode of the classic television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 until 2001, audiences hear the show’s theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which was written and composed by the great Fred Rogers. The composition was played by the highly-skilled musician, Johnny Costa, a classically trained pianist, who served as the children’s show’s music director.

Before Rogers hired Costa, many thought the celebrated musician would be too intricate of player for children’s programming, but both Rogers, who passed away in 2003, and Costa, who died in 1996, believed that children could handle sophisticated music. Turns out, they were right. The song has become one of the most recognizable in television history.

For Rogers, who majored in music composition at Rollins College, the theme song, the opening notes for which was inspired by a Beethoven sonata, introduced listeners to the idea of compassion, togetherness, understanding, and openness; to grow and change. It was an inclusive song, as integral to the fabric of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as pizza was to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The concept of “neighbors” is mentioned eight times in the lyrics.

While Rogers wrote the theme, he gave Costa the freedom to play it and interpret it how he wished. Costa, who believed he and Rogers had some unspoken creative connection, didn’t take this responsibility lightly, famously saying, “Children have ears, and they’re people, and they can hear good music as well as anybody else. So I started right from the beginning playing for them as I would for any adults.”

At the beginning of the recent documentary about Rogers and his show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Rogers talks openly and eloquently about his philosophy of music, teaching and not dumbing down ideas, all wrapped up in one metaphor. He says:

“It seems to me that there are different themes in life. And one of my main jobs, it seems to me, is to help through the mass media, for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life. Because it’s easy, for instance, to go from C to F. But there are some modulations that aren’t so easy. For instance, to go from F to F-sharp, you’ve got to weave through all sorts of things. And it seems to me if you’ve got somebody to help you as you weave —maybe this is just too philosophical. Maybe I’m trying to combine things that can’t be combined. But it makes sense to me.”

Later in the award-winning documentary, Rogers talks about the complicated feelings every person has, from childhood on. He admits to his own anger and confusions and notes that he was able to express these through music (perhaps, giving a reason as to why his show’s theme song is so nuanced and even epic).

“Music was my first language. I was scared to use words. I didn’t want to be a ‘bad boy,’ I didn’t want to tell people that I was angry. But I could show it through the way I would play on the piano” Roger says. “I could literally laugh or cry or be very angry through the ends of my fingers.”

According to YourClassical.org, Rogers wrote more than 200 songs for his famous television program, which ran for 895 episodes and 31 seasons. And, the outlet says, he worked closely with child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland to compose lyrics. Rogers also hosted famed musicians on the show, like Yo-Yo Ma, Tony Bennett, and Wynton Marsalis.

His theme song will live on forever.

Lyrics to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?

*Music and Lyrics by Fred M. Rogers. © McFeely-Rogers Foundation.

All Rights Reserved.

One Comment

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  1. “…introduced listeners to the idea of compassion, togetherness, understanding, and openness; to grow and change.”

    I can see togetherness but I don’t see any of those other things in this very short song. Am I missing something?

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