Schoolhouse Rock! hits the mid-century mark
Fri., Jan. 6, 2023
If “Three is a Magic Number,” then what is 50?
“Schoolhouse Rock!” debuted a half century ago today. Gen Xers grew up with the inventive and stimulating animated series, which featured infectious educational songs.
Exceptional songwriters Bob Dorough and Lynn Aherns penned songs, which helped children sharpen their math skills. But they also taught tykes about governmental checks and balance (“I’m Just a Bill”), immigration and diversity (“The Great American Melting Pot”) and women’s rights (“Sufferin’ Through Suffrage”). It’s hard to believe that the 19th Amendment, which gave women the ability to vote, was ratified just 53 years before “Schoolhouse Rock” debuted.
Dorough, who died in 2018 at the age of 94, was one of a kind. The versatile jazz vocalist-guitarist was hired due to his uncanny ability to write a song about anything.
“To me, Bob Dorough was like Bob Dylan meets Dr. Seuss,” Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs singer-songwriter-guitarist Frank Meyer said. “I met Bob when Rhino was going to release the first ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ box set. I was one of the younger Los Angeles musicians who was totally influenced by him.”
A group was put together to support Dorough for a tour behind the box set n 1996 and Meyer was hired as guitarist/backing vocalist.
“I was thrilled,” Meyer said. “The only other person I can compare Bob to is Jim Henson, who through the Muppets found a way to educate children but also entertain them and their parents.”
Dorough had the task of turning multiplication into music and government acts into fascinating fodder.
“That is not easy to do,” Meyer said while calling from his Los Angeles home. “But this was a guy who came out of the hippie generation, who was not a druggie. Bob had a more scholarly point of view. He was perfect for the Schoolhouse Rock! project.
“The people behind the project wanted a cheap songwriter who could entertain and educate. They knew that Bob had taken what was on the back of soup cans and turned that material into novelty folk songs. They knew the Declaration of Independence was an absolute snoozefest for kids, and they found a guy who could make that document interesting.”
Dorough, who had added vocals to some bonus cuts from Miles Davis’ seminal “Sketches of Spain” album, jumped genres and took chances.
“Naughty Number Nine” is strange and subversive. There is a sweet sadness to “Figure Eight.” “I Got Six” is a deep tune that is full of soul and has an unforgettable groove. Who didn’t love the brilliant “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here?”
Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom covered the song for the terrific “Schoolhouse” tribute album, “Schoolhouse Rocks! Rocks,” which was released in 1996.
“I think ‘Lolly,’ was my first choice,” Janovitz said while calling from his suburban Boston home. “It’s such a great song. It’s infectious and it does the job, just like all of the ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ songs do since it teaches us something. I knew we could turn ‘Lolly’ into something punk-pop. I haven’t heard the album we were on in years, but I remember it being really good.”
Pop acts of the day recorded tunes. Better Than Ezra delivered a version of “Conjunction Junction” and Blind Melon offered “Three is a Magic Number.” The Lemonheads impressed with “My Hero, Zero.” But what was so cool about the tip of the cap to the groundbreaking show was the eccentrics who were invited to the party. The quirky Daniel Johnston contributed “Unpack Your Adjectives.” Man or Astroman rendered a version of “Interplanet Janet.” The wacky Ween revamped “The Shot Heard Around the World.” Pavement added “No More Kings.”
“It really was a great collection of bands,” Janovitz said. “I remember Spin wrote a review that went something like, ‘A bunch of cartoon songs recorded by a bunch of cartoon bands like Buffalo Tom.’ I never understood what they meant by that, but some really cool bands were part of that album and we drew from some great material. People still come up to me and talk about ‘Schoolhouse Rock!,’ which won’t go away.”
On Jan. 6, 2013, the 40th anniversary of “Schoolhouse Rock!,” Dorough appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of an ongoing series of free concerts. Dorough sang and played five songs on the piano, “Three is a Magic Number,” “Figure Eight,” “Conjunction Junction,” “Preamble” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
In March 2019, it was announced that “Schoolhouse Rock! The Box Set,” was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in its 2018 class.
Southern Ohio Medical Center made an amusing and informative parody of “I’m Just a Bill, titled “Just a Vaccine” in 2021.
“Schoolhouse Rock!” lives on and is just as funny and as impacting today as it was when Richard Nixon was sworn in for his second term as president, the World Trade Center opened and the New York Yankees were sold for $12 million to a group led by George Steinbrenner.
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