School House Rock! Special 30th Anniversary Edition DVD (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2002)

Conjunction Junction, what's your function?

What thirty-something didn't wake up as a kid on Saturday mornings and run downstairs to turn on the TV and watch their favorite cartoons? If you find yourself in a crowd of Generation X-ers, you can find the answer to this question easily: just start to sing "Conjunction Junction" and you may be surprised at the mammoth number of people who respond with the ever famous, "What's your function?". Then again, if you are of this generation as I am, you may not. When the opportunity for me to take this trip down memory lane arose, I jumped at the chance -- I was more than willing to sit back and enjoy the music-filled animated educational shorts that helped to define and educate my generation.

School House Rock! Special 30th Anniversary Edition DVD is the most complete collection of School House Rock! that you can find anywhere. It contains all 46 original animated songs plus an all new song, "I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College". Also found on these two DVDs are puzzles, trivia games, music videos from contemporary artists, and audio commentaries by members of the original production team. After reading all of this in the package notes, the urge to return to my childhood overwhelmed me, and I became a couch potato for a few hours, enthralled with my return visit to the America of the 1970's. So, let me 'unpack my adjectives', get my adverbs from the Lollys, grab some conjunctions and get started.

My wife and I decided to watch the shorts by group, beginning with "Grammar Rock". I found myself singing along to "Unpack Your Adjectives", "Conjunction Junction" and "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here". Who can forget Lolly?

Lolly, Lolly, Lolly get your adverbs here!
Lolly, Lolly, Lolly got some adverbs here!
Come on down to Lolly's, get the adverbs here!
You're going to need
If you write or read
Or even think about it.

Lolly, Lolly, Lolly get your adverbs here!
Got a lot of Lolly jolly adverbs here!
Anything you need
And we can make it absolutely clear!

An adverb is a word...(that's all it is, and there's a lot of 'em)
That modifies a verb...(sometimes a verb! Sometimes...)
It modifies an adjective,
Or else another adverb.
And so you see that it's positively very very necessary!

I was pleasantly surprised by some shorts I had forgotten, like "Interjections". Wow! And there were a couple that I didn't remember at all: "Busy Prepositions" and the "The Tale of Mr. Morton". (This is because the original run of School House Rock lasted from 1973 to 1985, and then picked up again from 1990 to 1995, long after I had stopped watching Saturday morning cartoons.) While watching this section, my wife commented that she could remember taking a grammar test when she was in eighth grade, and kept replaying these songs in her head throughout the test -- she got an A. I can remember doing much the same thing when I was younger. The catchy songs were the best of mnemonic devices, easily recalled even under pressure. Once in a while, in the shower, in the car, a tune will start playing in my head, and sure enough...

We also noticed that the shorts were teaching more than just the material at hand (ie. grammar, math, history). They were subtly teaching us to be responsible citizens. "Verb: That's What's Happening" is just one example. The song is done in a Rhythm and Blues style; the main character is an African-American child. The animation shows him hugging his mother, going to an action movie starring an African-American Super Hero, and sitting in an audience with children of all colors. The message, of course, is that we should all be able to get along. As a child, that's the message that I received without knowing it, and without feeling that the producers were sermonizing; in most cases they taught through illustrating the concept rather than verbalizing it..

We moved along to "Science Rock". "The Body Machine", "Do The Circulation", "Telegraph Line" and "Them Not-So-Dry Bones" all deal with teaching anatomy, and how the body works. These creative and intelligent songs also remind us to eat properly and exercise. "Electricity Electricity" is one of the ones I remembered most clearly, as it taught me how electricity got to my house, how it was made, and touched on the fact that is costs a lot of energy to create it. This was the predecessor to "Energy", which is a brilliant and concise explanation of the 70s energy shortage. The message from this episode, one of energy conservation and development of new energy sources, is just as valid today as it was in the 70s. Don't forget to turn your lights off! My wife's face lit up when we saw "Interplanet Janet" -- she's a galaxy girl! This was always her favorite episode of SHR!. According to her, "Janet" was the main reason she was able to remember the order of the planets in our solar system at an early age.

How did you learn your multiplication tables? I have to say, that with songs like, "Three is the Magic Number", (which, incidentally, was the very first episode of *SHR!*), and "Figure Eight", I didn't have too many problems myself.

Three is a magic number.
Yes it is, it's a magic number.
Somewhere in the ancient mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
The past and the present and the future,
Faith and hope and charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three.
That's a magic number.

It takes three legs to make a tripod or to make a table stand.
It takes three wheels to make a V-hicle called a tricycle.
Every triangle has three corners,
Every triangle has three sides,
No more, no less.
You don't have to guess.
When it's three you can see it's a magic number.

Man and a woman had a little baby.
Yes they did.
They had three in the family.
That's a magic number!

Maybe my enjoyment of math came from watching these. Each of the classic "Multiplication Rock" episodes teaches a trick to help remember the multiplication table for the number in that song. I remember learning Base 12 math in high school and thanking "Little Twelve-Toes" for my mastery of this numeric system.

"America Rock" was intended to teach about American history and politics. One of the most famous of the School House Rock! shorts comes from this series: "I'm Just a Bill". Thanks to the cute little bill sitting on the steps of the Senate, I knew how a bill became law before we ever studied it in middle school. When "The Preamble" began, I once again found myself and my wife singing, realizing just how powerful and effective these pieces really are as teaching tools. And then there was "The Shot Heard Round the World":

Now the ride of Paul Revere
Set the nation on its ear,
And the shot at Lexington
Heard round the world.
When the British fired
In the early dawn,
The War of Independence had begun,
The die was cast, the rebel flag unfurled.

And on to Concord marched the foe,
To seize the arsenal there you know,
Waking folks, searching all around.
Til our militia stopped them in their tracks,
At the Old North Bridge, we turned them back
And chased those redcoats back to Boston Town!

And the shot heard round the world
Was the start of the revolution.
The minutemen were ready, on the move.
Take your powder, take your gun,
Report to General Washington,
Hurry men, there's not an hour to lose!

Without Mother Necessity we would never seen many inventions, and without "Mother Necessity" I may have not learned about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, or Robert Fulton and the steam engine. (If you haven't figured this out so far, I didn't pay much attention in school.) "Sufferin' Till Suffrage" had me most confused when I was younger, as I didn't understand why women weren't allowed to vote until the 19th Amendment was enacted. While it didn't explain that to me, it let me know that it was an issue, and my mother explained all about women's rights. Now, I have to admit that I don't remember "Three Ring Government", but I can't imagine a better metaphor for the government of the U.S.A. than a three ring circus.

"Money Rock" is definitely the weakest selection on these two discs. This section was new to me, as all of these rather depressing minis aired originally from 1994 through 1996. Even though they are newer, they still use the same teaching techniques, catchy songs and repetition, and are still fairly effective in getting children (and adults alike) to remember the lessons. "Dollars and Sense" teaches about banks, savings, and interest. "$7.50 Once a Week" explains responsible spending on a budget. "Tax Man Max" shows the good reasons people pay taxes, although I still think I'm paying too much! But then again, who doesn't?

Now, if you want to find out what "Dollar Cost Averaging" is, you'll want to check out "Walkin' on Wall Street". I learned more about the stock market in those 3 minutes than I did in an entire semester of Personal Finance. While the "Money Rock" segments are informative, they are not as uplifting, cheery, and easily retained as many of the other concepts explored by SHR!, and this may simply be due to the complexity and gravity of the chosen subject matter. Perhaps the producers forgot that their target audience is somewhere around nine years old and not really emotionally equipped to learn about the national debt. This brings us to the brand new SHR! short, "I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College" which hearkens back to the early "America Rock" and which is supposed to explain how the electoral college works. This may not have been the best subject to try and tackle in a three minute song. Most episodes of SHR! managed to cover their subject matter fairly thoroughly in the allotted time frame. This one, however, seems barely able to scratch the surface of the material, and, as with the "Money Rock" shorts, the song just isn't all that enduring.

All of this material, wonderful and otherwise, is found on the first DVD of this two disc set. The second disc features a plethora of amazing extra features which include a making-of featurette for "I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College", audio commentaries for several of the episodes, and the ability to arrange SHR! songs. You can even earn your SHR! diploma by successfully answering trivia about the multitude of episodes. Digitally re-mastered from the original animation and mono audio tracks, each episode delivered everything the child in my heart could wish for. The audio quality is clear and clean. The video quality looked just as good as (if not better than) I remember the originals looking when I would watch them and sing along as a child.

Over the years, School House Rock! has become so much more than just the forty-six 3 minute shorts originally developed for ABC television. SHR! won 4 Emmys. The songs and characters are ingrained in our culture. It has spawned CDs, videos, DVDs and two live productions. Nike used "Three is a Magic Number" in an advertising campaign. "Telegraph Line" was picked up and used by NYU to teach the nervous system to pre-medical students . The "America Rocks" series is recommended by immigration counselors as an educational tool for people who have applied for U.S. citizenship. The energetic songs, colorful animation, and a style which is child-friendly but never condescending makes this series a fun learning aid for just about anyone. My personal thanks go out to all the animators, musicians, writers, and voiceover talent that went into making School House Rock! I can't possibly imagine what my childhood years would have been like without the Lollys, Bill, Lucky Seven Sampson, or any of the other great SHR! characters, but I know that school would have been a lot harder without them. And even 30 years later, I find these as entertaining as when I first saw them. School House Rock! should and will endure as a beloved icon of Americana.

Darn! That's the end.

[Ryan Nutick]

You can find information about School House Rock here

Find more blasts from the past here