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Schoolhouse Rock!: Saturday Morning Schooling We Didn't Hate

Music | January 12, 2018

1/28/97.Painted production cell of 'I'm just a Bill' from the America Rock series. (Getty Images)

Schoolhouse Rock!, the Saturday-morning cartoon series of educational shorts, is one of the most successful stealth missions of all time.

For youngsters in the '70s and early '80s, Saturday morning was the end zone of the week. Cartoons, after five consecutive days of schooling, were a reward. No thinking was necessary, certainly no memorizing or learning of rules and facts. No, watching Saturday-morning cartoons was the opposite of school.

Somehow, dozens of short lessons about history and grammar were placed in the commercial breaks of those sacred cartoons and in a way that kids didn't even mind. These clips were produced with quality animation and absurdly catchy music and lyrics, and kids -- who above all just wanted a break from learning stuff -- learned stuff. Think about it -- can you remember, specifically, what cartoons you watched on Saturday mornings? But when you hear "I'm just a bill, yes I'm only a bill" or "Conjunction junction, what's your function" -- the memories come back, vividly. 

Aired on Saturday mornings, Schoolhouse Rock! was the brilliant idea of David McCall of the McCaffrey & McCall advertising agency. McCall dreamed it up after noticing that his son was struggling in school; more specifically with memorizing the dreaded, "times table." He also realized that his son had no problem memorizing the words to his favorite songs, so he came up with the clever idea of using music as a teaching tool.

From '3' to 37

Source: Wikimedia commons

Instructional words set to catchy tunes helped children with their studies and in the process showed them that education could be fun. The first show aired in 1972 and the rest followed from there. Between 1972 and 1979, 37 episodes were recorded on a wide variety of curricula. The first song ever written for Schoolhouse Rock! was "Three is a Magic Number."  

It Wasn't, At First, A TV Idea

Bob Dorough, a jazz bebop legend, was tasked with writing all of the lyrics and music for the "Multiplication Rock!" tunes. After the first song was released, artist, Tom Yohe began doodling pictures to go with the words. He then advised McCall that the songs would make for great animation.

Before Schoolhouse Rock! aired on television, it was intended to be written and released in workbook form. At the time, it was thought to have been an unfortunate disappointment when that deal fell through. They quickly regrouped and approached the ABC television network about picking up the show. They pitched their idea to the children’s programming division and they loved it!

Dorough wrote all the music and lyrics for the first season of Schoolhouse Rock!, and in subsequent seasons others joined the team. In season two, "Grammar Rock!," Lynn Ahrens played a significant role in developing the words and music, and Dave Frischberg and George R. Newall became major contributors in subsequent seasons. The jazzy voices of talented singers eventually got in the act including Jack Sheldon, Blossom Dearie and Grady Tate. The voices quickly became very recognizable to children everywhere.

Psst! Hey kid -- Wanna Learn About Nouns?

Kids were singing the catchy songs and were actually learning something in the process. The show aired for 12 years and boasted many big-name sponsors. At the same time there were other educational programs targeting children, but Schoolhouse Rock! was the only one of its kind.

Kids were singing about things like American history, electricity, science, multiplication, grammar and how a bill becomes a law. It was a huge success. Schoolhouse Rock! even performed live and parents flocked with their children to see it!

American History And Civics That You Could Dance To

Betsy Ross sewing the American Flag in a 'Schoolhouse Rock' episode.

Conveniently, the program was right on track to coincide with the American Bicentennial in 1976. Parents and teachers alike used the show as a tool and kids didn’t even realize that they were learning powerful lessons. It was similar to tricking kids into eating their vegetables. Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock, America Rock, and Science Rock. An ill-fated fifth season, "Computer Rock," attempted to educate kids on home-computer technology, but advances in that field and market made the animations obsolete. Every kid who watched had their favorite Schoolhouse Rock! songs, but general consensus ranks these among the catchiest:

"Conjunction Junction"

"Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here"

"Three Is A Magic Number"

"Mother Necessity"

"I'm Just A Bill"

"Ready Or Not, Here I Come"

"Figure 8"

"The Shot Heard 'Round The World"

"No More Kings"

"My Hero, Zero"

"Electricity"

"Verb: That's What's Happenin'"

A Valuable Contribution To Society

Schoolhouse Rock! aired for years and was a valuable contribution to the educational world. Even after original songs and episodes stopped being produced, it carried on for years in reruns. It had a long run and enjoyed a lot of success. Some kids, if they had to rely on in-school instruction alone, might never have learned what a conjunction is or how a bill becomes a law. 

Tags: 1972 | Education | Schoolhouse Rock | TV In The 1970s

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.