Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton became the de facto pop culture educational high-water mark, Schoolhouse Rock! held the position with authority for more than four decades. The show’s premise was deceptively simple: set educational topics from the worlds of math, grammar, science, civics and more to song and run the animated music videos in between Saturday morning cartoons. With such memorable songs as “Three is a Magic Number,” “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just A Bill,” its overwhelming impact was both immediate and long-lasting. Schoolhouse Rock! originally aired during ABC’s Saturday morning children’s programming from 1973 to 1985, with additional runs of old and new material occurring throughout the 1990s, in 2002 (“I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College” and “Presidential Minute” was created for their 30th Anniversary DVD) and again in 2009 (a whole new 12-song season called Earth Rock was given a direct-to-video release).
With more than 60 original episodes spread out over its seven themed seasons (Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock, America Rock, Science Rock, Computer Rock, Money Rock and Earth Rock), Schoolhouse Rock! crafted a legacy that stretched far beyond its Saturday morning borders and into the larger cultural lexicon, as evidenced by its tribute albums (1996’s Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks and 1998’s Schoolhouse Rocks the Vote!), theater productions (Schoolhouse Rock Live! and Schoolhouse Rock Live, Too), and oft-returning references continually popping up in television and film (The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Reality Bites, Robot Chicken, School of Rock, MADtv, Drawn Together, Family Guy and Nike commercials, just to name a meager few).
But more than just a nostalgic touchstone of a bygone era, Schoolhouse Rock! highlighted concepts that have remained true and relevant for decades, with many of them continuing to function as (sometimes scarily) imperative instructionals under our current political climate. With that in mind, here are 10 Schoolhouse Rock! refreshers that are more significant than ever under a Trump regime. Don’t forget, as we were reminded before each episode: “Knowledge is power!”
Appearing during the second half of the show’s third season/America Rock (running from late-‘75 to mid-’76), “The Great American Melting Pot” tells of America’s multi-heritage origins and calls out how immigration is an inherent contributing factor to our country’s infrastructure and cultural foundations: “They brought the country’s customs, their language and their ways. They filled the factories, tilled the soil, helped build the U.S.A.!” Alongside the nationalities specifically named in the song’s chorus (English, Germans, Dutch and French), the animation in the video goes even further in calling out the many countries making up the diverse U.S. population, including—much to the chagrin of many present-day immigration critics—individuals from Mexico and the Middle East. With our daily news cycle spilling over with all sorts of fear mongering and anti-immigration rhetoric surrounding issues like the Muslim travel ban, mass deportations, completely fabricated terrorists attacks and the many “build that wall” variations on a theme, we can’t be reminded enough, “How great to be an American, and something else as well.”
Written as a celebration of both the women’s suffrage movement and the ratification of the 19th Amendment, “Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage” is one of Schoolhouse Rock!’s funkiest and most forthright songs. As far as children’s programming goes, its opening lines—“Now you have heard of Women’s Rights and how we’ve tried to reach new heights. If we’re ‘all created equal,’ that’s us too!”—are some of the boldest and most important fundamental ideas ever conveyed during Saturday morning cartoons. The song specifically calls out suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Julia Howe and Lucretia Mott for how “They carried signs and marched in lines until at long last the law was passed.” For anyone who may think that “Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage” is just a quaint look at how women won the right to vote in the early 1900s, it’s important to remember that even earlier this year there were still a few individuals “carrying signs and marching in lines” for Women’s Rights during the global Women’s March (the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history) that took place the day after President Trump’s inauguration. With so many institutional and societal impediments opposed to the idea that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights,” here’s hoping that we’re not too far away from the possibility of more pro-equality Schoolhouse Rock! songs, each celebrating a new law that “struck down that restrictive rule.”
As a notable trivia aside, “Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage” was performed by Essra Mohawk, a singer-songwriter who has released over a dozen albums, almost played the original Woodstock (a wrong turn by her manager resulted in her arriving too late to play), and wrote Cyndi Lauper’s Top 5 hit “Change of Heart.”
After the dust finally settled on the contentious 2000 election in which George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore by the tightest margin in U.S. history (less than .01%), Florida underwent a highly publicized recount, and the term “hanging chad” found its way into the country’s vernacular, it became clear that the presidential winner actually lost the popular vote (for only the fourth time in the country’s presidential election process). In the aftermath, there was a renewed debate surrounding the Electoral College process and we even got a brand new Schoolhouse Rock! song out of it. “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College” was created for the 30th anniversary DVD release and explains, “When the popular vote is counted to find a winner in each state, each state will pledge all of its electors to choose the winning candidate!” While the popular vs. electoral results of the 2000 election seemed like an anomaly at the time (the last time it occurred had been in 1888), it only took four election cycles for it to happen again (and on a bigger scale) in the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Where Gore received over 500,000 more votes than Bush in 2000, Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than Trump in 2016, again reigniting the Electoral College debate with a revived fury. No matter where you fall on the argument’s spectrum, until a new/better/different process gets created and passed into law, “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College” reminds us all: “The folks who wrote our Constitution had the idea for this plan and it’s been used in our elections since our government began.” It’s also important to note that while the song doesn’t define the specifics of what an “electoral landslide” looks like, having the 46th lowest margin of victory doesn’t qualify for that distinction, no matter how many times the electoral winner may say otherwise.
When “The Energy Blues” debuted back in 1979 during the fourth season/Science Rock, America was still in the throes of a full-on energy crisis that had permeated almost the entire decade. Two years prior, President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Energy to help decrease the country’s overconsumption of energy and to enact a variety of initiatives addressed at energy conservation. President Carter was a big proponent of renewable energy, including some of the sources outlined in “The Energy Blues:” “Energy, you can get it by damming up a river. Energy, a windmill can make the breeze deliver.” While the song’s history lesson outlines the progression of our energy consumption from wood to coal to oil, it also mentions “new kinds” of energy sources like nuclear, thermal and solar as well. Decades on, this cheap-but-environmentally-destructive vs. renewable-but-costly debate still rages as President Trump has controversially appointed multiple cabinet members with strong oil, gas and coal ties, while simultaneously looking to do away with pro-renewable energy initiatives like the Clean Power Plan. While we wait to see how this administration’s energy strategy will play out, “The Energy Blues” reminds us all: “Don’t be cross when mama says turn that extra light out. Just turn it off till we find us a fuel that never runs out.”
While politics and circus-themed iconography go hand-in-hand, the connection is often only employed in disparaging ways. During the America Rock season, Schoolhouse Rock! playfully used the “under the big top” motif in an impartial manner to help explain constitutional separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. However, their tongue-in-cheek neutrality couldn’t sway the fears of the top brass network executives at ABC who were worried that the FCC might get offended and rescind their broadcast rights. Because of this, “Three Ring Government” was shelved for a few years and actually didn’t air until 1979. “Three Ring Government” easily lays out who and what makes up each branch’s “ring,” emphasizing, “No one part can be more powerful than any other is. Each controls the other you see and that’s what we call checks and balances.” An example of the real-world application of this systematic relationship might be when the President drafts an Executive Order employing a discriminatory travel ban and the “so-called” courts reject its legality and rule it unconstitutional. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
If you went to public school in the ‘70s or ‘80s, there’s a good chance you memorized the opening paragraph of the Constitution with Lynn Ahrens’ genteel voice guiding you along in your head. While Bob Dorough wrote the entire first season/Multiplication Rock by himself, Ahrens wrote the music and lyrics to many Schoolhouse Rock! songs starting with the second season, including “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” “Interjections!,” and the majority of the America Rock and Science Rock seasons. “Preamble” is one of the Ahrens contributions that she actually performed as well, bringing a warm charm to the folksy, Carpenters-esque singalong. Not only did Ahrens set the (almost) word-for-word opening to an unforgettable melody, but her relaxed phrasing really allows the listener to take in the gravitas of each founding principle: “Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” As a side note of trivia, the words “of the United States of America” (following “We the people”) was removed for metered rhyming purposes. So be careful if you’re being tested on a verbatim recitation.
If there’s any doubt as to how much of a high profile (and hot button) issue climate change has become over the last few decades, just know that it was enough to get the original Schoolhouse Rock! band back together two decades after their last full season aired to create not just a single song, but an entire new season on the subject. The 12-episode Earth Rock season premiered in 2009 as a direct-to-video release and it tackles such environmental topics as recycling, carbon footprints, water conservation, solar energy, rainforest deforestation and more. “Report from the North Pole” masterfully addresses the phenomenon of global warming by highlighting both its causes and its effects into easily understandable terms via kid-friendly polar bear reporters. While President Barack Obama’s efforts to fight global warming could be seen all the way up to his final week in office (when he transferred $500 million dollars to the Green Climate Fund), President Trump’s see-saw stance on global warming (he has referred to it as both “an immediate challenge” and “a hoax” multiple times) has become less back-and-forth since entering the Oval Office, as he has multiple Cabinet members who are climate change skeptics and his pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency (while not co-signing to the “hoax” rhetoric) has been non-committal at best. While there’s ample science to back-up climate change (especially in our polar regions), “Report from the North Pole” reminds us that we all have a part to play because global warming affects the entire planet: “We’ve all got to work together in this fight to save the weather. Because what’s happening up where we are just might happen down where you are.”
Another standout of the third season/America Rock, “I’m Just A Bill” has gone on to become one of the most recognized and celebrated songs in the entire Schoolhouse Rock! canon. Impressively boiling down the multi-step legislative process of how a bill becomes a law into an understandable (albeit slightly reductive) singalong, “I’m Just A Bill” has impacted pop culture in ways that completely outshines its origins. It’s not uncommon to encounter someone who is familiar with the “I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill” refrain and then find out they have zero knowledge of Schoolhouse Rock! whatsoever. Part of this phenomenon has to do with the song’s infectious catchiness and its cultural ubiquity, but a kernel of the kudos also goes to Jack Sheldon’s unmistakable and immediately identifiable voice. Sheldon is a renowned jazz musician who was the sidekick/music director for The Merv Griffin Show for many years, along with providing the singing voice for multiple Schoolhouse Rock! songs, including “Conjunction Junction,” “The Energy Blues,” “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” “Where The Money Goes” and many more. While Sheldon never wrote the music or lyrics for any Schoolhouse Rock! songs, his distinctive vocal performances were just as much of an integral piece of their creative legacy. When the alt-rock heavy Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks tribute album was released in 1996, Lou Barlow’s Deluxx Folk Implosion doubled-down on the song, delivering a cover version of the famed tune that ended up being one of the album’s more stellar moments.
After the fifth season/Computer Rock aired in the mid-‘80s, there were only a few new Schoolhouse Rock! episodes sporadically created for almost an entire decade. However, brand new episodes returned in style and en mass in the mid-‘90s with an entire the new season, Money Rock. One of the standouts of the Money Rock season was “Tyrannosaurus Debt,” a song about the ever-growing U.S. national debt, the budget deficit, and overall fiscal responsibility (or the lack thereof). With an impressively concise historical run-down that correlates the relationship between the country’s debt and its multiple wars—it also gets bonus points for name-dropping Alexander Hamilton before it was the cool thing to do—“Tyrannosaurus Debt” pulls no punches as it warns, “We’ve got to try to tame the debt and bring it down to size. To let it grow unchecked like this is certainly unwise.” The song even refers to our national debt as, “a fiscal misadventure with trillion dollar dentures,” which was an accurate assessment as the debt was hovering around 5 trillion dollars when the song premiered in early 1996. Since then, the U.S. national debt has almost quadrupled and is currently on pace to cross the 20 trillion dollar mark this year. While it is still too early to tell how the national debt will be affected under President Trump’s tenure, using debt to finance risky investments was one of his main strategies as a businessman (which resulted in wildly varying degrees of successes and failures). We can only hope this administration understands that the real world doesn’t operate like real estate and that “A balanced budget would be great to spend within our means. To stop the monster in its tracks before we bust our seams.”
Acknowledging both sides of the patriotic coin, Schoolhouse Rock! has never been afraid to address some of the more unflattering elements of America’s history, while being equally unashamed to revel in the country’s more celebratory moments as well. This was none more evident than with the creation of “Fireworks,” a song written about the Declaration of Independence that aired on July 3, 1976, just one day before America’s much ballyhooed bicentennial. Telling the story of the original colonists, Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, “Fireworks” connects the dots between the summer holiday and its most recognizable tradition: “On the Fourth of July they signed it and 56 names underlined it and now to honor those first 13 states we turn the sky into a birthday cake.” Much as she did with “Preamble,” Lynn Ahrens once again pulled direct verbatim wording from historical documents and put it into a song that kids could remember, helping students everywhere to quickly recall it’s immortalized second sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While the exact meaning and interpretation of these words have been debated since before the ink was even dry on the original parchment, it’s now more important than ever to make sure that any statement, policy, ruling, law or otherwise coming out of Washington is held up to the light of these foundational tenets. Because as Schoolhouse Rock!, “Fireworks,” and history itself reminds us, “Like Thomas Paine once wrote, it’s only common sense that if a government won’t give you your basic rights, you’d better get another government.”