One nearly universal touchstone for my generation as school children was Schoolhouse Rock, the 2-3 minute educational segments inserted between Saturday morning cartoons. Schoolhouse Rock turns 40 this coming week, and the Kennedy Center celebrated with a special concert on the Millennium Stage over the weekend.
As the Washington Post explained, Bob Dorough, who recently turned 89, was the man who got the job of writing and voicing most of the ditties that we know so well. For years, he would be playing his jazz gigs only to have someone mention that his voice sounded familiar, and when the connection was identified, there would be an immediate request for some Schoolhouse Rock. Bob Dorough played about half the concert and the other part was provided by a local band called, Rocknoceros.
The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center is known for providing a free concert every day of the year, so it was on my DC list of things to do. I sent out an email to the Fellows telling about the concert, although I really wasn’t sure if there would be any takers since our age differences might put the younger folks out of the bracket who grew up with Schoolhouse Rock. It turned out that Schoolhouse Rock ran for two time periods, first from 1973 through 1985, and then another few years in the mid-1990s. I suspect that Maggie is a child of the second generation, but she announced that she wouldn’t miss the concert.
Sunday night was billed as a family night concert, but in spite of the large array of toddlers, the event was really all about the adults. The Millennium Stage is in the back hallway of the Kennedy Center and has very minimal seating, so the crowd was perhaps 12-15 people across and then stretched back as far as I could see. Maggie and I estimated between 700 and 1000 people in attendance, and although it was often hard to hear, the music was still excellent.
Bob Dorough, who obviously is an old hand at this music, came to the piano and started off with “Three is a Magic Number,” followed by “Figure Eight.” (If you skate, you would be great,
If you could make a figure eight. That’s a circle that turns ’round upon itself.) Both of these songs are part of Multiplication Rock, so even if the audience didn’t know all the words, we could be relied on to provide the products of the times tables. By the second time through, Bob would pause for us to fill in, “10 x 3 is (30), 9 x 3 is (27), etc.” I, personally, was much happier on the 3 times tables than on the 8’s, but Figure Eight is certainly a good song.
From there, we went into Grammar Rock and the train song, “Conjunction Junction.” The crowd supplied the repeated phrase, “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” and Bob would fill in, “Hooking up words and phrases and clauses” along with all the verses. I even had the little girl next to me joining in for the chorus! I did realize partway through, however, that even back when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons, I learned harmony rather than melody, but I sang the line that I knew, and that didn’t seem to bother anyone.
It was inevitable and appropriate for a DC concert that the two History Rock songs next were “I’m Just a Bill” and “The Preamble.” I can only imagine how satisfying it must have been to sit on the stage and listen to hundreds of adults singing the Preamble to the Constitution all from memory and realize that it was your project that taught the lesson. I remember being required to recite the Preamble in Ms. Gonser’s 8th grade social studies class, and because of Schoolhouse Rock, I already had it learned on the first day.
Rocknoceros took over for a while and started off with “Unpack your Adjectives,” which was a bit more challenging to follow without the animation and without being able to hear the voices clearly. Maggie and I discovered that the set of songs that we remembered were slightly different; she hadn’t learned the Preamble song, although she looked up the lyrics on her iPhone. I don’t remember any of the Science Rock songs, so “Electricity” and “Energy” weren’t familiar to me. No one else sang those songs either, so I didn’t feel left out. “Fireworks,” which is apparently the story of Colonial America, was slightly more familiar, but that also wasn’t one I knew well.
The last song of the short concert was, “Interjections,” which was a crowd favorite. Bob Dorough returned and joined Rocknoceros for this finale, and either his deft touch with song selection or with the audience was quite apparent. I actually knew the verses for this one, and we all sang the choruses. There is also an interlude section in which the hundreds of Schoolhouse Rock veterans in the crowd ended up supplying all of the interjections:
“So when you’re happy – HURRAY! Or sad – AWWW, or frightened – EEK! Or mad – RATS or excited – WOW or glad – HEY! An interjection starts a sentence right.”
Most of us went into fits of laughter after the first pass on that section because we shared not only the right words, but also the same inflections, especially the heartfelt disgust of “RATS!” I can only imagine what the kids were thinking as all those adults suddenly yelled out in unison.
Happy Birthday, Schoolhouse Rock, and thanks for teaching me and my generation about math, grammar, history, and science. We’ve learned our lessons well.