‘Schoolhouse Rock’ Turns 50: Artists Share How It Educated Them About Music & the World

‘Schoolhouse Rock’ Turns 50: Artists Share How It Educated Them About Music & the World

For a generation of young minds tuned to ABC on Saturday mornings in the ’70s, the cartoon series Schoolhouse Rock was the quintessential spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of public education go down.

While the actual series didn’t make its debut until January 1973, its pilot — the song “Three Is a Magic Number” — originally appeared during the debut episode of a show called Curiosity Shop on Sept. 2, 1971. The Curiosity Shop version of “Three,” one of the most beloved songs in the series and part of hip-hop history thanks to De La Soul sampling it for “The Magic Number” in 1989, contained an additional scene/verse that explains the pattern of each set of ten containing three multiples of three, animated in the form of a carnival shooting game. This scene has never been rebroadcast on ABC, nor has it been included in any home media releases.

Nonetheless, Schoolhouse Rock – with its distinctive animation created by Phil Kimmelman and Associates and sweet, catchy songs penned by master songwriters like Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens — provided a healthy dose of quality “edutainment” for millions of American schoolchildren throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Not only did the show help kids sharpen their skills in math, grammar and science, but it provided progressive lessons on civic and social topics that still resonate 50 years later, including immigration (“The Great American Melting Pot”), women’s rights (“Sufferin’ Through Suffrage”), social distancing, sorta (“Elbow Room”) and governmental checks and balances (“I’m Just A Bill,” “Three Ring Government”). Recently, the good folks at Southern Ohio Medical Center made a cute, informative lampoon of “I’m Just A Bill,” titled “Just A Vaccine.

To celebrate 50 years of Schoolhouse Rock (which continues to educate and entertain in 2021 thanks to Disney+), Billboard spoke with a wide cross-section of musicians to find out how Schoolhouse Rock informed their growth as songwriters and students.

Schoolhouse Rock first aired the year I was born. That’s a long time ago to some. By the time I was old enough to sit in front of the TV this series was there to teach me something between my usual Saturday morning cartoon offerings. It wasn’t until I began to write about it today that I realized I’ve recited a part of the theme song in my head throughout my entire life: ‘cuz knowledge is power’! It was a great hook. I wonder how profound an effect these three-minute cartoon blasts of music had on me? I vaguely remembered the lessons but after spending some time online it all comes back. As an adult I feel I can truly appreciate the quality of these productions. Maybe there could be an adult education version?” – Jason Corbett of ACTORS

“Of all the educational videos we watched comin’ up, Schoolhouse Rock was in a class of its own. The songs of Bob Dorough caught the attention of all students, sticking with our generation through adulthood. On my track ‘Aye There,’ the line ‘Conjunction junction, trying to find out how you function’ is a reflection of his staying power… a way of tipping my cap towards a legendary musician whose melodies I can’t get out of my head!” – Marcus Atom

“I really don’t remember much of how we were asked to do [1996’s Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks tribute album]. We said yes to a lot of stuff back then. I just remember that when we were asked, I was happy to contribute as that was a huge part of my childhood. I couldn’t believe ‘Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here’ was still available, as that was such an infectious song that really leant itself to a pop-punk approach, which is sort of what we went for. We had a fun time doing it.” – Bill Janovitz, Buffalo Tom

“There’s just no overstating the genius of this show. The songs, the soul and the fantastical idea that learning could be interesting and fun…and it wasn’t just for kids. The level of the songwriting had a huge effect on me. But this show also taught me valuable life lessons I wasn’t getting at home, and that went way beyond learning what a noun is. You can’t watch ‘Verb: That’s What’s Happening’ and not be amazed. But ironically the lasting legacy just might be their show on interjections and their current overuse: Wow! Aww! Hey! Because we don’t know how to talk anymore!” – Josie Cotton

“I met Bob Dorough in the mid-‘90s when some friends and I went to see him perform his Schoolhouse Rock! material for the first time in years at the now-defunct Silver Lake club Spaceland. We interviewed him after the show for a fanzine and learned tons of stuff we never knew about our childhood hero.

“He played with Miles Davis, he recorded for legendary jazz label Blue Note, and was discovered by ABC as a for-hire songwriter because he had recorded a novelty album where he turned the ingredients from the back of food cans and safety instructions from household appliances into lyrics to jazzy, folky pop songs. THAT was how he got the Schoolhouse Rock gig: the folks at the TV network knew he could take any ol’ thing and turn it into a catchy ditty, so they commissioned him to turn the multiplication tables into music. Who knew?

“As we wrapped up, I chatted with his manager and mentioned if Bob ever needed a guitarist or backing singer, I was absolutely available. She mentioned he was putting together a tour to promote the recently released SHR box set on Rhino and could indeed use another vocalist. And that was it! So began my brief tenure as a member of Bob Dorough’s Schoolhouse Rock touring band. He came to my half-house off Melrose with his keyboard and we sat in my living room and worked out the vocal harmonies, piano and guitar parts. He brought in a couple young Cali musicians that he knew to round out the band, and I brought in a few of my friends, including the great Cherie Currie of The Runaways, who sang the woman’s rights anthem ‘Sufferin’ ‘Til Suffrage’ at a few shows to the delight of the packed houses.

“Following the rehearsals at my crib, we moved on to Uncle Rehearsal in Van Nuys for a weekend or so as we prepared for our opening date at the Troubadour. At this point, I was singing lead vocals on ‘Electricity’ and ‘Naughty Number Nine,’ plus crooning the part of Lolly Jr. in the popular ‘Adverbs’ anthem, so I was in heaven. We also added some original SHR players to the lineup for a few shows, including legendary trumpet player/vocalist/actor Jack Sheldon (voice of The Bill, the ‘Conjunction’ conductor, and so many more), Wings drummer Denny Seiwell, and ‘Unpack Your Adjectives’ vocalist Essra Mohawk.

“The opening night was a blast, followed by a few weeks or so worth of shows, culminating at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Bob was an absolute joy to be around for every second of this journey. He was always positive, always friendly, always had a giant smile, and seemed genuinely enthused to be around young musicians that were inspired to play music. Not just that we loved his music, but that we loved to play music. He really treated us all as equals, which is incredible considering how accomplished he was and what utter dorks we all were (except Cherie, she is the coolest ever).

“Bob Dorough didn’t just make music. He taught us things through music. He educated with music. He used music as a tool to change lives and to inspire people. Look, we Hollywood douchebags all play an instrument or whatever, but most of us are doing it to serve some internal ego-voice or cry for art acceptance on some level…but think about what a larger calling his was? The guy jammed with Miles Davis and then went on to teach you and your kids and your kid’s kids what an adjective is. He taught us our multiplication tables and history lessons through songs that you won’t get out of your head until you leave this planet (but don’t worry, ‘My Hero, Zero’ will help you home). Seriously, to this day I still have to hum his song to remind myself what exactly the function of a conjunction is.

“Bob also had an incredible ponytail. He augmented his well-earned receding hairline with a long gray ponytail that seemed to have a life of its own. It would swish from side to side. It pulled and tugged. It glided. It was a big part of his personality, much in the way Jerry Garcia’s beard was such a part of his persona. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anyone wear a ponytail as righteously badass as Bob Dorough.

“A few years later, I went to see him at a jazz club doin’ his thing and he absolutely killed as always. He was as charming, brilliant and adorable as he always was, and damn if he didn’t go another few decades just out there doing what he loved to do, bringing joy to people’s hearts, teaching and inspiring through music. Meanwhile, us ten-toed folks are still here on Earth just surviving…” – Frank Meyer, The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs/Spaghetti & Frank

“I was definitely a fan of the Schoolhouse Rock songs as a kid, and that enjoyment never waned as I grew older. I had the ‘Constitution’ song memorized, along with ‘Just A Bill’, ‘Conjunction Junction’, and the ‘Noun,’ ‘Interjections’ and ‘Adverbs’ songs. ‘Interjections’ has always been my favorite, if only for its immense comedic potential when one substitutes off-color adjectives for the actual lyrics… To this day, the phrase ‘Hooray! I’m for the other team!’ is in my lexicon. Now my kids know the songs. I think they should be declared World Heritage artifacts. (The songs, not my kids.)” – Kurt Larson, Information Society

“I loved Schoolhouse Rock growing up. I feel like we all wished for a music teacher and music programs those in Schoolhouse Rock. The cool thing is I did have a rock star music teacher who every lesson, every song and chorus feel bigger than what it was. Mrs. Bessie White. Her energy and enthusiasm was almost identical to the entire programming of SHR but she was just one person. Incredible.” – Tanya Trotter of The War And Treaty

“It must have been one of the first songs to get stuck in my head – “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.” I was in school and I was learning about the U.S. government, but I was also learning something else, something that would become foundational in my life: melodies are a kind of magic. They stick with us in a way words cannot, they live in the pathways of our minds, along with whatever message they carry. I have since spent my life using melodies in an attempt to reach people, just like Schoolhouse Rock used to reach me, as a kid, with a song stuck in her head.” – Rozzi

“Thanks to Schoolhouse I learned how to count and understand syllables and all kinds of things they tried to teach us in school. I am a direct product of the timeline and programming of that show. I sang those songs in my head till this day. That show was intended to inspire kids to make connections between music and history, politics, fundamentals. Everyone doesn’t learn the same way. The connection between content and melody was a great recipe for kids. Happy birthday, Schoolhouse Rock.” – Marc Cary

“I really liked ‘Naughty Number Nine’ ’cause it was kind of weird and subversive, and the multiplication song made me want to gamble and win. I got hooked when I heard Bob’s jazzy rasp of a voice breaking the rules even as he explained them… this guy had a wild mind, which I figured out later equaled creativity.” – Nellie McKay

Schoolhouse Rock for me was nostalgic even though I wasn’t born in that era. The animation provided me and my two brothers with instant warmth, and the music was so damn well written. I feel that a lot of children’s TV programs nowadays have such a patronizing tone, but Schoolhouse Rock seemed to understand how intelligent kids are. I can still go back to Schoolhouse’s catalogue and pick out a few absolute bangers. The writing was just so sophisticated and interesting, that’s why it left such a ceaseless mark on me. Three is a magic number, with its Paul Simon-esque jollity, still provides an open warm hug of nostalgia for me.” – Dylan Howe of Rowan

“Oh man, I haven’t thought about these songs in a while. I remember watching them as a kindergartner and adoring them, especially that ‘Figure Eight’ song. Just like that other children’s song ‘Inchworm,’ there’s a sweet sadness in ‘Figure Eight’ that I identified with at an early age. That little girl in her ‘what if’ dreamland and the minor melodies – I totally related. Funny how I’m still attracted to and write songs with this sort of wistful sentiment, maybe Schoolhouse Rock is where it all started? Chicken or the egg.” – Greg Bertens of Film School

“It was a little before my time, but I do remember watching a few episodes about mathematics and some of the money-related ones; what a great show that used music to help kids figure out difficult concepts! My mom always used to rhyme or make up little stories with vocab words so they would be more memorable, like ‘ameliorate’ …. Amelia Earhart made things better for women. It works!” – Jenna Kyle

“If the songs weren’t great, they wouldn’t be in my head right now, 40 years later, as I write this. That’s because they are great. And it’s as hard or harder, in my opinion, to write a song as good as ‘Just A Bill’ as it is to write ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ You can’t read either of those lyrics without hearing the melody. We all know both of those songs. We can hear the human spirit behind them.

“There may be a difference between a mansion and a row home, but neither will stand very long without an unbreakable, solid structure. And along with The Jackson 5 and Sly Stone, Schoolhouse Rock introduced us white kids to the grooviest music in the world. It certainly hit me where I live. ‘Conjunction Junction’ was my personal fave/jam.

“I’m just realizing now that it’s come full circle actually. Last year I put out an animated mini-series about pandemic life that featured songs by myself, Goffrey Moore and Nicki Bluhm called The Best Of Times. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to feel the joy I had as a kid in the worst year I was having as an adult. So thank you Schoolhouse Rock. You were my generation’s true School Of Rock.” – Scot Sax

“I was a massive fan of Schoolhouse Rock. I bought it on VHS for my kids and watched it a lot myself without them. I was a tad old for it when it started — nine or 10 and already knew the tables, but I learned a ton from grammar and history rock that came a little later (did anyone under 16 know what a conjunction or an interjection was before they saw the Schoolhouse Rock songs about them?). Well into my twenties I was turning on the TV on Saturday mornings to try to catch them. That said, it’s probably been more useful to me as a teacher than in my own stuff, which might not serve their purposes, but the ‘Verb’ one is still as funky as anything else from that golden era.” – Mark Sanford, composer

“I was a kid who moved a lot, a household that was always shifting with various people in and out but there were a few consistencies I could count on: music, comics and cartoons. Schoolhouse Rock was able to combine all of these things and they were done so well I would hesitate fetching another bowl of Sugar Smacks during the commercial breaks for fear I would miss ‘Conjunction Junction’ or ‘Just a Bill.’ From the other room my brother would yell, ‘Hurry! Schoolhouse Rock is on’ causing me to spill the milk from my bowl as I scampered and settled in on the orange shag carpet. Throughout elementary school the three branches of government would swirl in my head as I stared blankly out the window, lost until Jack Sheldon’s warm and comforting voice would spring from my mind, the bouncing words of ‘Just A Bill’ not only providing comfort but digestible comfort into how the government works. Years later when my son was struggling with his multiplication tables, I belted out ‘five-ten-fifteen-twenty’ in that perfect cadence of ‘Multiplying by Fives,’ he learned his fives in a flash. Better than flash cards.” – Bela Koe-Krompecher

“Schoolhouse Rock rocked its way into my consciousness at a young age. My mom bought me the VHS tapes and I loved watching them (on purpose!) and learning about conjunctions and interjections (show excitement! or emotion!) and multiplication. So many of those songs, beyond being very helpful mnemonics, are truly great works of songwriting. ‘Three is A Magic Number’ and ‘My Hero, Zero’ are melodies that can stand beside any pop hit of the day, and ‘Figure Eight’ need not have been so hauntingly beautiful to tell us that 2×4 is 8, but it went there. Also, in the late ’90s, I attended theater camp in Birmingham, AL and we put on a production of Schoolhouse Rock Live. I think it was pretty haphazard considering we were mostly talent-less children with only two weeks to learn lines and choreography, all while trying to navigate who to eat lunch with and how to hold your pee as long as possible because the counselors would only take you to the bathroom one time and think that was enough. Anyway, I can still remember jazz-handing my way through ‘Interplanet Janet.’” – Kerry Alexander, Bad Bad Hats

“Well, I was probably influenced—more than I know—by Schoolhouse Rock. That, and maybe Tom Lehrer, who gave me the desire and permission to write topical songs. But forget Schoolhouse Rock, I just saw that Bob worked with Miles, Allen Ginsberg, and wrote the music to one of my all time favorite songs—Blossom Dearie’s ‘I’m Hip.’ This cat was deep. Here is a song of mine certainly influenced by the spirit of Schoolhouse Rocks: ‘Who Is a Democratic Socialist?’” – Jill Sobule

“Growing up in the early ’70s I was a big Schoolhouse Rock fan. I loved epic tunes like ‘Just a Bill’ and ‘Conjunction Junction’ like everyone else, but the ones that really got me were the songs from Multiplication Rock—specifically ‘Naughty Number Nine,’ ‘Figure Eight’ and ‘Three is a Magic Number.’ In my house growing up it was mostly Broadway show tunes and light pop, so hearing Grady Tate’s soulful delivery of ‘Naughty Number Nine’ for the first time completely blew my mind. I don’t think that I had ever heard the blues before. I also grew to love ‘I Got Six,’ which was a James Brown-inspired tune also sung by Grady Tate and for the same reason — groove and soul. But there was more than just being exposed to new sounds and grooves that grabbed my attention. Bob Dorough’s simple yet incredible orchestrations had the ability to transport my young imagination to new places—as much, if not more, than the lyrics. (Which of course are amazing. I mean, the final line of ‘Figure Eight’: ‘Place it on its side and it’s a symbol meaning infinity.’ So avant-garde and hip!) Most of the tunes were played by a more standard pop trio or quartet, but Dorough very cleverly would add a single instrument to masterfully augment the sound and put the listener into a different realm, a place where the lyrics would resonate more deeply. For example, the subtle use of the mbira in ‘Three is Magic Number’ along with the repetitive I-IV chord progression is just hypnotic and makes one think of West Africa, or the solo cello added to ‘Figure Eight’ alternating between arco and pizzicato over the minor verses summons up enchanted visions of Eastern Europe. As someone who spends most of his day writing music for Sesame Street I often think of and draw inspiration from the music of Schoolhouse Rock—not only for the incredible music, clever lyrics and beautiful pacing, but for the pure sense of joy and fun that shine through the entire series which is really at the core of teaching through music.” – Joe Fiedler, Sesame Street

“I wasn’t alive for the original broadcast of these episodes, so my discovery of this excellent program of catchy educational songs and trippy animation, was through the 1996 soundtrack and reruns. I’m just realizing now, that as a teenager at the time, this was probably also my intro to indie rock bands like Folk Implosion and Pavement. To this day, that school bus-yellow CD case, fantastic cover of “Three Is The Magic Number” by Blind Melon, and accompanying cartoons, has been forever etched in my mind, which in my humble opinion, is a sign of an instant classic.” – Tierney Tough

“Born in 1967, I’m exactly the right age to have all the OG Schoolhouse Rock songs permanently lodged in my brain from the weekly ritual of Saturday morning cartoons. In 1988 it was my bandmate Juliana Hatfield’s idea for our band Blake Babies to cover ‘The Preamble,’ which sent me down a rabbit hole to rediscover all of those amazing jams. I was surprised by both the quality of the writing and the catchiness — and familiarity — of the earworms. I’m sure for my next time to revisit the material, having raised kids, I’ll be surprised all over again with a whole new perspective. Schoolhouse Rock was a great idea fully realized, and it had a huge impact on an entire generation of kids at heart.” – John Strohm, formerly of The Blake Babies and The Lemonheads, currently president of Rounder Records

“If it wasn’t for Schoolhouse Rock, I wouldn’t have made it through school. ‘Conjunction Junction what’s your function … and, but, or will take you very far!’ That song still runs through my head today.” – Rodney O’Quinn, Foghat

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