Many of you have probably noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. This became especially embarrassing when I was informed last week that Reconciliation Blog had been named to “The 50 Top Evangelical Christian Blogs” by the Biblical Learning Blog. So, I figured I should try to work my way back into that blogging rhythm. Truth is, I get tired of writing about race all the time. That’s why I took a pass on some of the recent race-related incidents, including Harry Reid’s awkward comments and the whole Blind Side debate (which inspired an excellent commentary from my friend Joshua Canada, by the way).
Anyway, I’m not feeling especially insightful right now, so allow me to indulge my bent for nostalgia again. Ever since I turned 40 last year, I’ve found myself spending more and more time reflecting on the music, movies, and TV programs of bygone eras. Some of you might remember my Hee Haw post from last year as a prime example. Lately, I’ve been flashing back to that iconic Generation-X childhood favorite School House Rock! In fact, I’ve been driving my wife and kids crazy singing and humming various tunes from that classic Saturday-morning series of educational shorts. I’m sure our teachers were helpful, but come on–how many of us actually learned our grammar, math facts, astronomy, and American history from “Conjunction Junction,” “My Hero, Zero,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “No More Kings”?
But here’s the thing: I’d argue that School House Rock was not only educational academically; it also was a great example of racial and cultural reconciliation in action on television. Like Sesame Street and The Electric Company before it, School House Rock reflected the diversity of America, both through its wonderful music and animated characters, who comprised a colorful swath of races and ethnicities. The song “The Great American Melting Pot,” with its mellow Karen Carpenter-esque vocals, even spoke about the importance of that diversity. (On the negative side, I think one of the glaring omissions in the SHR catalog is an honest overview of both the history of the Native American people in this country and the civil rights movement; I guess the early ’70s was still too soon to tackle these thorny subjects on Saturday-morning television.)
I loved that the SHR songs — which were written and performed by an exceptional team of musicians (most notably, Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens) — experimented with pop, blues, jazz, folk, country, and other musical genres. In all honesty, the “Rock” in the title was only true in the loosest sense of the term. Still, SHR is a nice reminder of the days before extreme niche programming, back when a single radio station could play everything from Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye to Tammy Wynette and Aerosmith.
School House Rock also allowed occasional nods to the Bible and Christian culture. For instance, many of the songs featured gospel-flavored idioms. Check out the use of the Noah’s ark story in “Elementary, My Dear,” as well as that song’s “gospelly” vamp.
I know I’m not alone in my affection for School House Rock, so I thought I’d try something different here at Reconciliation Blog and offer up my personal list of the Top 10 SHR songs. These kinds of lists are subjective by design, and they often rile up those who think “this” or “that” should’ve been included or left off. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? So, here we go — my roundup of “the best” School House Rock songs. Once you’re done reading and listening, please feel free to share your own lists — or to tear mine to shreds. Or both.
#10 Sufferin’ Till Suffrage
Not only did this one firmly lodge in my mind the helpful fact that women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it’s also a jazzy tune that reminds me (both in musical style and feminist swagger) of Donny Hathaway’s great theme to the classic sitcom Maude.
#9 Verbs: That’s What’s Happening
Ah, now this was perhaps the funkiest of the School House Rock tunes. I mean, this one is full-throttle ‘70s groove. Plus, it painted a positive picture of an urban neighborhood that still had its own movie theater where kids could go see matinees by themselves, and then run home to the loving arms of their parents. When I was 6, I wanted to live in this community.
#8 The Preamble
This one makes my list simply for the fact that it, probably more than anything else, helped me pass my junior high Constitution test. And I know I wasn’t the only one that used this song’s catchy, banjo-driven tune to help me memorize the “We the People” preamble.
#7 Three Is a Magic Number
Such a sweet song this one is. I used to love how it talked about “faith and hope and charity,” while featuring that precious portrait of “a man and a woman” who “had a little baby … they had three in the family.” There’s also an interesting reference to the “ancient” and “mystical” Trinity.
I love the voice of Essra Mohawk, who sang this one, as well as “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” The song also has that Handel’s Messiah vibe, with its exuberant chant of “Hallelujahs” as its coda. I always could relate to the little girl at the episode’s close who would bemoan, “Darn! That’s the end!” I, too, wanted the song to go on and on.
#5 Figure Eight
Like the Charlie Brown TV specials, and Vince Guaraldi’s accompanying scores, there was always something just a little melancholy about many of the SHR songs. For me, this one was the most introspective and melancholy of them all. Being a mildly melancholy kid, I loved it. What’s more, I still hear Blossom Dearie’s breathy and delicate vocals in my head whenever I’m doing math that involves multiples of eight.
#4 Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla
A great song featuring Latino characters and their busload of kangaroos, aardvarks, and rhinoceroses. The narrator, Albert Andreas Armadillo, presents the strange case of Rufus Xavier Sarsaprilla and his sister, Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, and demonstrates quite convincingly how pronouns make our lives easier.
#3 Naughty Number Nine
This has to be the bluesiest of the SHR songs. Put your headphones on and listen to the jazzy horn section, the mellow bass, and the rich vocals by Grady Tate, the veteran jazz musician who also teaches at Howard University.
#2 I’m Just a Bill
I used to always think this one, along with “Conjunction Junction” and a few others, was sung by Ray Charles. Only years later did I discover that the actual vocalist is a white singer and actor named Jack Sheldon. His is one of the most soulfully distinctive of the SHR voices, and this song gave many of us a running start for our U.S. Government classes in high school. Maybe this should be required viewing for some of our current lawmakers.
# 1 Little Twelvetoes
I know this isn’t among the most popular SHR songs. I personally never cared for this one as a kid; however, my appreciation for the lyrical depth and musical sophistication of this song has grown over the years. There’s something both progressive and psychedelic about this one. I hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd. For me, this song above all the others demonstrates how musically serious the SHR songs were. Even though they were primarily writing for grade-schoolers, Bob Dorough and the other composers never assumed that their listeners were too young to appreciate clever and complex musical arrangements. There’s also an underlying message in this song, I believe, about celebrating our diversity, sharing our gifts with others, and recognizing the value of those who might be different from us.
Well, I could easily list another 10 SHR songs, but I’ll leave this as my best-of. Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.