“Looks Like It’s Gonna Be A Free Country”: ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’, 1973 – 1976

Features / May 17, 2018

GRASSO: Much like our Transformers G1 feature, this one’s going to be hard for me to be objective about. Schoolhouse Rock! is a pivotal, crucial part of my early childhood media landscape. These short animated films aired on ABC during Saturday morning cartoons from 1973 through 1985. Every Saturday, we’d head over to my grandparents’ house in East Boston, where the grownups would gather in the kitchen to have coffee and I’d plunk myself down in front of my grandfather’s gigantic console TV and watch cartoons (and, of course, after that, Candlepin Bowling). My education at school throughout the early ’80s was bolstered by tons of PBS programming like the mentioned-in-these-pages ad nauseam Cosmos, 3-2-1 Contact, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and so many more. The major commercial networks also felt obliged, at least before Reaganite deregulation of the children’s airwaves, to provide some educational content on Saturday mornings.

I’m sure over the course of this round robin we’ll talk about the content of the series, its very particular 1970s visual (and musical!) aesthetic, and its outsized impact on Generation X pop culture. But mostly I wanted to do this feature so I could get a Brit’s opinion of the classically unbridled American optimism of the animated vignettes that touched a generation. To that end, I curated a brief “best of” playlist, with special attention given to “America Rock,” the political/historical shorts produced for the American Bicentennial in 1976. While everyone loves classics like “3 Is a Magic Number” and “Conjunction Junction,” I find the content of the America Rock cartoons to be far more intriguing in 2018, and fairly important to my own early political and historical consciousness. Okay, Richard, here it is: what did you think of Schoolhouse Rock!?

schoolhouse rock sufferin til suffrageMCKENNA: My god, they’re so… so American. What the hell else can you call that relentless confidence and seemingly-sincere positivity, that combination of easy professional slickness and folksy informality? Speaking as a product of the Britain of the ’70s, they provoke conflicting feelings in me: on the one hand a sort of snotty, superior dismissiveness of their jejune, puppyish exuberance and, on the other, absolute envious awe of the multi-color we-can-do-it just-too-fucking-much-ness of the things. So professional, so upbeat, and nothing like the (sometimes) endearing yet ramshackle stuff we seemed to be producing at the time. Watching them reminds me of how it used to feel when something like Wait Till Your Father Gets Home or The New Shmoo would pop up on British TV like some daunting, incomprehensible vision from an alternate reality, loudly puncturing a hole through our drab domestic programming with its echoes of a superhuman world that spoke the same language as us but seemed vastly more vivid and confident.

What with the brassy showtunes, the first couple I watched were a bit overwhelming, but now that I’ve seen a few more, Jesus, these things are beautifully done. They’re absolutely seamless: I’m not sure about their political précis, but the way they’re put together is just lovely. How did it feel as a kid to watch these crazed blasts of cultural programming, Kelly?

ROBERTS: My god, I haven’t seen most of these in more than 35 years! I’ll be honest: I was not the least bit interested in Schoolhouse Rock! I was neither bright nor ambitious; I just wanted to watch Scooby-Doo and Thundarr the Barbarian, play with my Star Wars figures, and ride my gnarly Schwinn Scrambler. Having said that, I remembered all the words to “I’m Just a Bill,” most of the words to “Conjunction Junction,” and all of those segments were familiar—like an old blanket—in varying degrees. I suppose that was kind of the point: give kids fun, challenging, entertaining educational material, and they’ll learn and remember better. My first thought, especially as a parent of two young daughters, is how much the children’s TV landscape has changed since then. In the 1970s, there were four channels to choose from. You looked at the TV Guide, and you tried to secure the one TV in the house (in my case) before your show(s) started. The entire week—every waking hour—revolved around that schedule. Want to watch Land of the Lost? Cool, great show—better get your ass up at 7:00 am! One of my fondest memories is when my dad picked me up from school early—on consecutive days!—so I could watch the “giant monster movie” marathon (Empire of the Ants, baby!). That’s how important the TV was.

schoolhouse rock conjunction junctionNow, my kids can choose from hundreds of channels and shows on TV or iPad, and they’re all on demand, for better or worse. I initially wanted to say that the emphasis on education isn’t as focused, but that isn’t true. There are a slew of quality shows they’ve watched that are educational and fun (Blue’s Clues, Peg + Cat, Yo Gabba Gabba), although now it’s mostly My Little Pony, Elena of Avalor, and virtually every incarnation of Scooby-Doo (hey, they’re my kids). We have to monitor their “screen time,” of course, because this stuff is omnipresent. Back in the day, it was kind of monitored for you. (Home sick? You got Bonanza reruns, The Price is Right, and soaps.) And because of the dominance of the major networks, we were a captive audience. That’s one reason I still remember the words to “I’m Just a Bill.” The other is the genius of Bob Dorough (1923-2018), who wrote and performed the incredibly smart and catchy tunes for Schoolhouse Rock!.

GRASSO: Was I shocked when I rewatched these Schoolhouse Rock episodes and saw how blinkered and simplistic their view of US history was? Maybe a little. Songs like “The Shot Heard Round the World” and “I’m Just A Bill” are infused in my deepest childhood memories, just as Kelly notes above, and so their messages rode their way into my brain on the backs of those indelible melodies. It’s hard for me to square the aesthetic of these friendly, vivid, hippie-lite cartoons with the messages they convey. The patriotic, even nationalistic approach to American history was nothing if not commonplace in K-8 schools even in the liberal Northeast as late as the 1980s. Plymouth Rock, 1620, taxation without representation, Bunker Hill, Lewis and Clark, Manifest Destiny, Civil War, women’s suffrage: the parade of America’s history presented as a series of easy-to-remember facts and figures.

But Schoolhouse Rock! has something on top of that, an ineffable quality Richard mentioned: the power to make us feel, and specifically feel a peculiarly American optimism. “The Great American Melting Pot” is literally the story of my family, European immigrants who came to the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the tale that’s achieved mythic status in our culture: of Ellis Island and assimilation but keeping the things that made our national cultures special: “They brought their countries’ customs/Their language and their ways/They filled the factories, tilled the soil/Helped build the U.S.A./Go on and ask your grandma/Hear what she has to tell/How great to be an American/And something else as well.” Damn, it still gets me, three-and-a-half decades after hearing it for the first time. In the 1970s, this assimilation-and-success European immigrant narrative was one that loomed large in pop culture, in everything from The Godfather to the so-called white “ethnic” vote that helped build the Nixon/Reagan silent majority. And in an age when immigrants are feared and reviled by those very same descendants of Europe’s teeming masses, it’s a welcome tonic to see and hear a song like this, celebrating our differences.

But it’s hard to look directly at how perfectly contrived and, yes, “diverse” this song and cartoon was without thinking of two very important American populations: American natives, who of course are the only non-immigrant culture in North America, and the descendants of African slaves who came here in chains. Almost nowhere in Schoolhouse Rock! do they get a mention.

There is a question of how much complexity and nuance one can expect grade-schoolers to internalize about history, of course. But if we don’t start teaching the ambivalent aspects of the history of our country to children at an early age, what sorts of critical faculties will they be able to bring to historical analysis as they get older? If one wants to tell positive stories, give the children Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth or Ida B. Wells or a real story focused on Sacajawea, instead of the briefest blip she gets in the otherwise-execrable paean to westward expansion, “Elbow Room.” These are inspirational stories that deserve their own focus. Schoolhouse Rock! gets close to this in “Sufferin’ ’til Suffrage,” the song and cartoon dedicated to the movement to extend the franchise to American women. In an era of the Equal Rights Amendment, it was a good (if, again, whitewashed) history of women’s rights in America for kids’ consumption. It makes me wonder why, in a late ’70s era of pop culture like Roots and a new awareness within academia of how to teach about the histories of oppressed peoples on the North American continent, why Schoolhouse Rock! used content that honestly wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950s or earlier.

On Twitter the other day I saw some educational materials produced in Peronist Argentina, where a basic elementary reading primer was interrupted by devotionals to the supreme leader and his wife. It was jarring, but I thought to myself, is our own deification of the Founding Fathers also not jarring and harmful? Maybe I’m overthinking all of this, but I have to imagine (or hope) that a Schoolhouse Rock! made today would offer a slightly different view of our complex history.

MCKENNA: I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember if we had something similar, but for all the BBC’s much-vaunted educational mandate, I can’t actually come up with anything. We had school TV programs—which you watched at school, god forbid you were bored enough to want to watch them at home—and we had children’s TV programs, which came packed with educational messages, though the messages tended to be more of the “don’t be a show-off, you might get killed by a train” variety. We did have stuff like How and Don’t Ask Me, that dealt in “facts,” but I can’t remember any overt attempts to implant a shared national narrative in our young brains. Perhaps in those pre-Thatcher, pre-Falklands days, that was actually the way things were—and it certainly feels as though the UK of the time, despite being in many ways pretty retrograde, was a less jingoistic place than it has become. As I recall it, any connection to history seemed to come from the psychedelic stew of the Iron Age, the Middle Ages, Roman Britain, and the Vikings that seemed to come bubbling up willy-nilly into practically everything, but without any cogent attempt to contextualize or summarize.

schoolhouse rock 3 is a magic numberFrom outside, artifacts like this are difficult to parse. As you say, Mike, these historical summaries are as reductive as they are cute: they are one-sided takes on complex and often violent events that had far-reaching effects on the entire planet. And, as you also note, the thing that sticks out in these messages of togetherness is what’s (and who’s) missing. They almost seem to justify the slightly envious accusations of glibness that Brits of the time would often throw about in reference to US culture (one particular gripe of my grandad’s, “What they always bloody smiling about?!”, sums up the mood pretty well). Though from exactly what pulpit of profundity we deigned to pass such judgement I don’t know, unless it was the pulpit of taking pessimism for objectivity. Whereas, as Kelly says, these things go straight into your brain—they’re incredibly well-tooled bits of cultural technology that are difficult to resist.

ROBERTS: Mike, I’m reminded of your piece on the Ad Council’s ecology PSAs of the 1970s, especially the famous “crying Indian” spot. On the one hand, as you point out, the actor in that ad was an Italian-American who spent much of his career playing stock Native American characters. On the other hand, the ad makes explicit the colonization of Native American land and the decimation of the environment by white European settlers (and their thoughtless, selfish descendants). I think it was Rob MacDougall who pointed out on Twitter that that there was a kind of smugness in the air in the ’70s, as if being “open-minded” and “aware” of past injustice was enough. Of course, it wasn’t enough, and all of the problems that we paid lip service to then are around now, many of them more desperate than ever. The counterculture of the ’60s and early ’70s was largely a white phenomenon, after all, so many of its proponents awash in the kind of privilege that can afford the real life consequences of radicalism and debauchery. As the hippies dropped acid and pored over The Lord of the Rings, the inner cities (born of white flight) suffered an influx of heroin and devastating neglect.

This smugness still exists today, a defining aspect of upper middle class liberalism. Its representatives cheer public schools and immigrants’ rights and economic justice while they bus their kids to private school and swamp formerly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Privilege that doesn’t recognize itself is one of several fish bones stuck in the throat of America.

GRASSO: Maybe I’m overthinking Schoolhouse Rock! a bit and judging it too harshly. (Here comes some dialectic!) Obviously, Schoolhouse Rock! and America Rock specifically were designed to make American history relevant and fun to the children of the Bicentennial. And I have to note, the animation style of these cartoons is so perfectly ’70s: crude child-like character design, big smiles, everything ever-so-small and cute. The overall effect is to render all of these historical figures friendly, comprehensible, inoffensive. I could compare it to something like the recent phenomenon of the musical Hamilton, where the stories of long-dead white men were made more immediate by the inclusion of actors of color and a musical style (hip hop) relevant to a young, contemporary audience. But honestly, I’m realizing now that Hamilton rubs me the wrong way for the same reason as Schoolhouse Rock!: maybe the Founding Fathers and the American legacy of conquest and slavery don’t really deserve to be made cool. We always say we’re a country founded in rebellion, but ultimately, what kind of rebellion was it? Maybe it just wasn’t within our grasp to be that soul-searching in 1976. Maybe it isn’t today. One wonders what the power of these catchy tunes and cute images would be had they been channeled into stories that really needed telling in 1976. As Richard noted above, they’re powerfully catchy and shameless in their appeal to sentiment. I’d love to hear from anybody from the creative team behind America Rock and see what their thoughts are about it today. Do they feel like they were being smug or complacent about their progressiveness in retrospect? Do they wish they’d told the story of people like Eugene V. Debs, or Jane Addams, or even Martin Luther King?

This is not to say I don’t still treasure these cartoons on some level, especially the ones less fraught with political and historical implications. My favorite Grammar Rock cartoon, aside from the insanely catchy “Conjunction Junction,” is probably “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here!“—but I’m also a sucker for father-son relationships in cartoons (these were the “Cat’s in the Cradle” ’70s, after all). And you can see why “3 Is a Magic Number” has become such a classic; it’s got that early-’70s starry-eyed pop spirituality, evoking “that ancient mystic trinity” and the mystery of birth at the same time it tries to teach you your times tables! This is that strange era between the conservatism of the ’50s and the reaction of the ’80s when the counterculture assumed the mantle of our society’s teachers and tried, fumblingly at times, to find a new way to teach. What an odd little artifact Schoolhouse Rock! is, and what an odd time in American history. Indubitablyyyy.

5 thoughts on ““Looks Like It’s Gonna Be A Free Country”: ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’, 1973 – 1976

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  5. There’s a real value to America Rock in terms of basic civic education, now utterly unfunded, or anti-funded, leaving few with an understanding of how a basic democracy is supposed to function. Civic ed has critical and under-considered importance. Thanks for the article!

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