Day 706: One-Thousand Word Rock!

originally published December 6, 2013

If someone were to stop me on the street (or some other such location where I’d be removed from easy access to my braintrust, the internet) and ask me how a Canadian bill becomes a law, I’d have no idea. I know we have a legislative branch, and that there are votes and dissent and people that thump their hands against table-tops. But the details of the process? No clue. And I work for the government.

But before you condemn me as one of the drooling ignorant, in my defense there has never been a catchy song written about how Parliament does its thing.

As a kid, there were scant few options for television programming, so when something animated was on we watched. And despite our base desire for pure entertainment, the educational stuff would seep in through the cracks.

On Sesame Street the learning was fairly obvious. Mr. Rogers was teaching us all sorts of valuable lessons, but we didn’t care because we liked his sweaters and puppets. But perhaps the catchiest and most fun show from my youth was the delightful School House Rock: 3-minute animated classroom lectures, set to music.

Oh, we also had the Log-Driver’s Waltz too. Got to give props to true Canadian learning.

Around the dawn of the 1970’s, David McCall was a huge name in advertising. He was half of the successful Madison Avenue firm McCaffrey & McCall, which pulled in over $40 million in billings every year. One day David noticed that his son was having trouble remembering his multiplication tables. The kid could spout off the lyrics to the entire Beatles’ White Album and remember inane pop music ramblings like “there ain’t no one for to give you no pain,” but when it came to math he was lost.

McCall came up with the idea to combine school lessons with rock music. He commissioned jazz pianist Bob Dorough to create “Three Is A Magic Number”, which was pressed as a children’s record. The tune was put to some catchy animation, and since David McCall already had the ear of ABC (they were McCaffrey & McCall’s biggest client), it was an easy pitch as a series. Michael Eisner, then the head of ABC’s children’s programming, snapped up School House Rock and suddenly we were all learning to a backbeat.

But let’s face it, when people reminisce about School House Rock, they aren’t getting wistful over “Verb: That’s What’s Happenin’” or “Suffrin’ ‘til Suffrage”. There was really only one lasting star from the series and his name was Bill.

“I’m Just A Bill” has been covered, parodied, and sung drunkenly at weird parties since its debut in 1975. If you haven’t seen it – wait, seriously, where have you been all these years? Get thee hence to the Youtubery – it’s the tale of how a bill becomes a law, as told from the perspective of the bill itself. The bill in the cartoon had to do with school buses stopping at railroad crossings. In the song, our little paper hero triumphantly becomes law. In reality, no such legislation has ever been approved by Congress.

Bill is the only character from the original series to make a second appearance, showing up at the tail end of “Tyrannosaurus Debt”. Of the 37 three-minute segments that ABC ran on full-cycle repeat throughout the 1970’s and early 80’s, “I’m Just A Bill” was the fan favorite, the star of the show. And that’s due in a large part to this guy:

That’s Jack Sheldon, pioneer trumpet player during the West Coast jazz movement of the 1950’s, collaborator with Art Pepper and Gerry Mulligan and the picture of pure cool. He also provided Bill’s voice in the cartoon. Jack had an impressive career, performing as Merv Griffin’s sidekick for a number of years and even landing his own sitcom, Run, Buddy, Run. It’s a wacky story about a guy who overhears a mafia boss plotting a murder and then goes on the run, because potential dismemberment and/or murder is always a romp.

Jack voiced the “Louie The Lightning Bug” public service shorts in the 80’s, and he also appeared in an Oscar-winning documentary about Chet Baker. As a testament to his cool, he played the magnificent saxophone heard all over Tom Waits’ Foreign Affairs album. Perhaps most impressively, Jack appeared as himself when both The Simpsons and Family Guy parodied “I’m Just A Bill.” Jack has a sense of humor.

A number of other notable names popped in to the School House. Jazz chanteuse and star of the supper clubs Blossom Dearie sang about adjectives. Hard bop drummer and the guy who worked the skins during Simon & Garfunkel’s Central Park concert, Grady Tate, taught us how to multiply by six. Lynn Ahrens, who won a Tony Award for writing Ragtime, gave us a lesson on interjections. Essra Mohawk, one-time member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, sang that one.

The Tokens, who topped the charts with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, sang a piece about gravity. Dave Frishberg, whose jazz tunes have been cut by Diana Krall, Rosemary Clooney, Shirley Horn and Mel Torme, wrote a handful of School House Rock tunes, including “I’m Just A Bill.” They didn’t aim to scoop any big-name artists for this gig, but they had a superlative team.

The legacy of School House Rock lives on, as savvy parents continue to show the shorts to their kids. And why shouldn’t they? They take ideas more complex and grown up than letters and numbers and work them into cute little cartoons. Kids eat up cartoons like candy. A live show has toured the continent, and a 1996 album featured fifteen covers of songs from the show by prominent artists. This was handy if you’d always hoped the singer from Blind Melon could put down the heroin for a moment and help you out with remembering the multiples of three.

VHS, LaserDisc, DVD… these cartoons have been out there for public consumption since the birth of the home video market. In 2009, Disney – who now owns the franchise, just as they own practically everything else – released eleven new shorts, gathering together much of the team who created the phenomenon 30 years earlier.

Dated as the music and animation may seem to our weary and cynical eyes, these cartoons really hold up. My daughter, who swam amid the filth and drek of modern children’s programming, loved these things. Also, she learned how a bill becomes a law in another country. That’s the kind of knowledge that lasts.

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