Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Schoolhouse Rock!


In the midst of an intense hearing for Alabama senator and U.S. Attorney General appointee Jeff Sessions, there was a surprising bit of silliness: Jeff Sessions is a big fan of “Schoolhouse Rock!”

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said that there was a “civics crisis” in the U.S. and asked about Sessions’ thought on [President] Obama’s use of executive orders. While arguing that Obama’s use of executive power was an overreach, Sessions said that he felt “Schoolhouse Rock!” was “not a bad basic lesson in how the government is supposed to work.”
There you have it. What more do you need than an endorsement from an actual government representative on the effectiveness of Schoolhouse Rock! as an educational tool?

This series of musical shorts was part of my childhood as it was for most kids of my generation, and I grew to anticipate it as much as the other series on Saturday mornings. They were proto-music videos, with original, catchy songs designed to make kids learn about science and math and history in a fun way, to the point where they don’t even realize they’re learning—and it works. I can still sing the preamble to the Constitution without missing a beat.

“Three is a Magic Number”
The brainchild of ad exec David McCall, who wanted a better way for his son to learn multiplication, he hired musician Bob Dorough to write a math song. The result was the first SHR hit, “Three is a Magic Number.” McCall’s co-worker, illustrator Tom Yohe, made some accompanying images and they pitched it to ABC as a series. The SHR pilot, featuring “Three,” debuted in 1971; two years later came the series. Yohe and George Newall were the executive producers and Dorough, who died two years ago, was musical director.

The following are some of my favorite songs in the series. Links to the videos are in the titles.

—“Verb: That’s What’s Happening.” Music by Zachary Sanders, lyrics by Dorough. The song is all kinds of awesome, but I’m still hoping somebody, somewhere will do something with the Verb superhero character in the video. He’s already cool enough to have his own movie; give him a TV show, a comic book, a toy line, something. 

—“Unpack Your Adjectives.” Music by Blossom Dearie, Lyrics by Newall. Blossom Dearie (yes, that really was her name) was a jazz singer in the 50s and 60s and yes, she really did sing in that high, girlish voice. I liked this video because I can easily imagine a kid on a camping trip who complains the whole time about the tiniest things using adjectives like “frustrating” and “worst” to describe it. Plus, I just thought the little girl slapping signs on everything was kinda funny.

“I’m Just a Bill” taught how a bill
becomes a law.
—“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Music and lyrics by Dorough. A greatly simplified, but memorable summation of the Revolutionary War, I just remember liking the song a lot. It came in handy while writing my novel, too: I remembered this song while making a passing reference to the war.

—“Interplanet Janet.” Music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Obviously one that appeals to the SF geek in me, this is another character I’d love to see something else done with, but first I think she’d have to be defined. She seems like an alien life form but she has a body like a rocket ship?—which makes me think she’s actually some manner of cybernetic creature. She probably doesn’t need to breathe since she can travel in space, but what does she use for propulsion? If there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen, how fast can she travel? Light speed? Inquiring minds want to know!

—“Electricity, Electricity.” Music by Sanders, lyrics by Dorough. EEE-lec-tricity. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. EEE-lec-tricity.

“Conjunction Junction”
taught about conjunctions.
In 1993, a live theatrical adaptation of the SHR songs debuted in Chicago and has enjoyed a number of revivals since, including a sequel.

I worked in Tower Records in 1995, which is how I learned of the rock album of SHR cover songs, Schoolhouse Rock Rocks (which makes an excellent companion piece to the rock album of cartoon theme songs, Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits). Listen to “I’m Just a Bill” by Deluxx Folk Implosion to get an idea of what the album’s like. 

Dorough gathered new groups of musicians together to make more SHR songs in 1994-96 and again in 2009.

SHR aired on ABC, and in 1996, Disney bought ABC, so Disney... sigh... owns the rights to SHR now—but at least they actually play the series on Disney+, which is good.

SHR was and is a lot of fun and it’s good to know it hasn’t been forgotten.

Bob Dorough

2 comments:

  1. Sometimes, out of the blue for no particular reason, Garry and I will start singing "Conjunction, Junction, What's Your Function?" Honestly, kid or big kid, Schoolhouse Rock educates in a fun way that stays with you.

    A couple of photos by Tracey.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/misstraceynolan/218892298

    https://photos.allaboutjazz.com/image-40787

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  2. Cool pics. Hope she got his autograph too.

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