Lonely Together: Mister Rogers as performed by Daniel Knox
What can we keep learning from the music of Mister Rogers as we grow older? Katie Wallach talks with singer-songwriter Daniel Knox about his album of Mister Rogers covers and the lessons we can take from the beloved children’s show host into our adulthood.
“We speak with more than our mouths. We listen with more than our ears.” This was part of the heart and soul of America’s favorite neighbor. For decades, Mister Rogers acted as a security blanket for children, from when his show first aired in 1968 to its final episode in 2001. To audiences, he was both a mentor and a friend, celebrating the uniqueness and joy of adolescence while guiding children through some of the more difficult aspects of growing up. Mister Rogers was incredibly outspoken, using his voice and his platform to address topics that at the time were considered taboo, such as racial injustice, inclusivity for those with disabilities, and the concept of death. He gave children the space to explore the often unexplored within themselves, to look inside their hearts and know they were not alone in their feelings. To many, he was magic. Floating from the screen to the soul, armed with sayings and songs that still come to mind. When looking at the piles of trauma, injustice, and hardship in this country today, it really feels like we need Mister Rogers.
Enter Daniel Knox, a musician from Chicago who released a record featuring some of the iconic songs from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The joy of Mister Rogers fills the air once more. I got in touch with Knox about the album, wondering what drew him back to Rogers at this point in his life. Knox said he grew up watching Mister Rogers, and was inspired by the way in which he made his audience feel heard. “He spoke and sang about the human experience in ways that delighted me but also made me feel seen,” he wrote back. “His program dealt with things that were imaginary and very real. Sometimes wonderful, sometimes even frightening. As a child it made me feel seen and understood to have my fears and worries addressed, without being spoken down to.” Knox also commented on the ways in which he was impacted by Rogers’ unflinching ability to explore various topics, regardless of how hard or untouchable they seem. “He showed you how to ride an elevator and how it works, then in the same direct manner explained how guilt was something we all feel and how you can feel with it,” Knox said. “He did this without scolding or condescending.” Part of what made Mister Rogers such an important part of America’s collective childhood was his refusal to talk to his audience like they were too young to understand more mature topics. This made children feel more capable, and gave them an accurate roadmap to understanding their feelings.
With Knox’s album, songs that once soothed us amidst our childhood frustration now afford us a minute to exhale within the chaos that has been 2020 and 2021. Removing the songs from the context of the show reveals them to be so much more heartbreaking, in a way. What was once so simple in our childhood haze now references the pain of adulthood in a way that feels both familiar and unfamiliar, with Knox’s hauntingly deep voice taking the reins as the narrator. Lyrics like, “Often I wonder if I’m a mistake / I’m not supposed to be scared am I / Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake / Wondering isn’t it true that the strong never break / I’m not like anyone else I know” pack a significant punch as an adult. My simplified child mind always thought this was a song about being yourself. I guess to some degree it still is a song about being yourself, but the message becomes so much more somber to listen to as you age. This is the beauty of Mister Rogers, regardless of your age, it feels like he is holding your hand as you listen to him. This is also the beauty of what Daniel Knox brings to this music. There is a quality to his voice that makes his delivery feel like that of a true storyteller. He sounds weathered, like he has a message worth listening to. It is Knox’s delivery that allows these songs to shine in a new and welcomed, albeit devastating, context.
Sometimes, when my family would take a long car ride I would pretend to be asleep as we approached our destination so I could be carried from the car. I would wake up in bed, and I remember how warm and loved I felt. That’s what Mister Rogers felt like to me in my childhood. Everything Fred Rogers did was an act of love. There was a safety about him. He was magic. These days, I fantasize about falling asleep in the car and waking up in my bed, but there is always so much to do and I probably weigh too much and I need to help bring groceries in… and the list goes on. It is the harsh reality of the everyday-ness of young adulthood that comes to mind when listening to Daniel Knox’s iteration. The pockets of beauty in the tracklist feel bittersweet, a reminder that life is not as simple as it once was. To a child, the song “I’m Taking Care of You” is about the privilege of helping those around you. To me, today, I am immediately reminded of my grandmother who has been forced to live alone due to the ongoing pandemic. I think this melancholy adds a lot, it completely changes the definition of the music, it gives these songs the chance to age. Mister Rogers had the ability to say something that is both totally complex and overly simple. How I wish I could have a neighbor like Mr. Rogers once more. ▲
Katie Wallach graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Media Studies. Her two favorite things are watching The Truman Show and forcing her friends and family to watch The Truman Show.