Schoolhouse Rock at 40: Revisit a Collection of Nostalgia-Inducing Educational Videos

Sometimes a tune lives in your head and you hum it now and again without any recollection of where it originally came from. Chances are, if you grew up in the United States watching Saturday morning cartoons, that tune came from Schoolhouse Rock.

Like so many of its biggest fans, Schoolhouse Rock is now officially in its 40s. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the pilot segment, Three is a Magic Number, whose melody and lyrics ooze the type of hippie Sunshine Family wholesomeness so abundant in ‘70s children’s programming.

Man and a woman had a little baby,

Yes they did.

They had three in the family.

And that’s a magic number

Follow that up with Schoolhouse Rock’s winning formula: simple, hummable tunes mixed with math fact lyrics.

3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30.
3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30.

Schoolhouse Rock started out as an advertising venture on ABC, dreamed up by an executive whose son was struggling to memorize his multiplication tables. But it grew into the most popular interstitial programming (short vignettes shown between TV segments) in modern television.

One of the most memorable melodies is Blossom Dearie’s sweet and melancholy Figure Eight, broadcast in February, 1973. This one was covered by Eliot Smith in a decidedly less upbeat version.

Without a doubt these three-minute animations (by Loonie Tunes animator Chuck Jones) are some of the best modern educational videos around. Whose social studies teacher didn’t show this tuneful explanation of the legislative process during class?

And this one about the Constitution, well I have to admit that it still chokes me up.

The man behind the vast majority of the music is Bob Dorough, a pianist who worked with Miles Davis and Allen Ginsberg before becoming the voice and main composer for Schoolhouse Rock.

The series took on nearly every subject, from multiplication and grammar to science and American government. Today’s educational software developers would kill to make grammar as fun as Conjunction Junction and Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.  The producers didn’t shy away from more weighty issues either. Take a listen to this little ditty on the theme of American territorial expansion.

The series took a break during the 1980s but picked up again in the mid-’90s with Money Rock. In 2009 came Earth Rock. Both featured a more gloom-and-doom feel than the inspiring tone of the earlier Schoolhouse Rock iterations.

Sometimes the original really is the best.

You can purchase the complete set of Schoolhouse Rock videos on Amazon. We’ve also added a link to this post in our new collection: 200 Free Kids Educational Resources: Video Lessons, Apps, Books, Websites & More

Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Read more of her work at katerixwriter.com and thenifty.blogspot.com. 



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by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

  • http://www.emmynate.com Chris P.

    We have one of those minivans with a built in DVD player and, barring trips greater than an hour, the only things played on the DVD player are the Schoolhouse Rock DVDs or They Might Be Giants terrific DVD Here Comes Science (The videos on the DVD are all available free) – Example: Meet the elements – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy0m7jnyv6U

    It has been great for the kids and us – we get stuff we all like to listen to and its educational too.

  • http://none gena

    Thanks for mentioning Bob Dorough, however not also crediting the genius, Dave Frishberg, is a failure as he much to do with the creation of these songs.

  • http://georgenewall.com George Newall

    Actually, although Dave Frishberg wrote he classic “I’m Just a Bill,” Lynn Ahrens wrote almost as many of the songs as Bob Dorough, including “The Preamble.”

  • SDR

    Thank you!!!!

  • George Newall

    Actually, none of the films were produced by
    Chuck Jones. Most of them were done by Phil Kimmelman and Kim & Gifford. Chuck Jones’s contribution was telling Michael Eisner to buy the series after witnessing part of our original presentation at ABC. Dave McCall’s original idea was never meant for advertising, it was to be an educational phonograph record.

    Incidentally, Bob Dorough turned ninety this year.And he’s still on the road here in the States
    and in Japan and Europe. He’s remarkable!

    And thanks for your kind words.

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