Grammar In Song: Farewell, Bob Dorough

Written by:

For my generation, Schoolhouse Rock composer Bob Dorough taught us the beauty of eights, the power of electricity, the shot heard around the world, and how to use verbs and adverbs.

And he supplied us with this unforgettable educational catch-phrase: conjunction junction, what’s your function?

Of course, the Arkansas-born Dorough didn’t start out teaching Generation X-ers special lessons about language. He got his start as a jazz pianist, playing clubs in New York City while in graduate school at Columbia. He toured on a regular basis with everyone from Sugar Ray Robinson to Blossom Dearie. Along the way, Miles Davis asked him to contribute a song to a Christmas jazz album, he wrote a song for Mel Torme, and in later years he worked with Nellie McKay.

But he’s always going to be best known for providing Saturday mornings its most beloved soundtrack.

When I was a kid, nothing was better than those Saturday mornings. My mother would be sleeping in, and my grandfather was already out walking or going to Saturday Morning Mass. I carefully poured my cereal, snuck some chocolate chip cookies from the cookie jar and sat down to watch Saturday Morning Cartoons. ABC had the best ones: Scooby Doo, Superfriends, Plastic Man, and the block wrapped up with American Bandstand.

But the best parts were the interstitial Schoolhouse Rock spots.

They would start off with a little boy learning, then transforming into a superhero as the chorus sang: “As your body grows bigger/Your mind grows flowered/It’s great to learn/’Cause knowledge is power!/It’s Schoolhouse Rock/That chip off the block/Of your favorite schoolhouse/Schoolhouse Rock!¬† Then it was time for a song about adjectives, prepositions, pronouns, and other useful grammar tips.

But the most famous one was the one Dorough wrote himself.

It started off with a railroad yard. A jazzy theme started playing, with the chorus singing, “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” Then Jack Sheldon sang “Hooking up phrases and clauses” while the yard filled up with train cars.

In the middle was a little man wearing overalls and an oversized blue hat. The song then proceeded to name conjunctions: and, but, and or, then showed how they work in a sentence. Years later I tried to figure out what made it work. Was it because the song was incredibly catchy? Was it the rhyme? Or the little man in the overalls?

But that’s the thing about magic–even when you strip away every layer you’re no closer to understanding what made it work.

Dorough continued as the music director of the show until the mid-eighties. In the nineties, ABC brought back Schoolhouse Rock, which was going through a nostalgia phase. The cast of Reality Bites sang “Conjunction Function” during the opening scenes of the movie. A live on-stage production of Schoolhouse Rock went on a national tour and many Gen-Xers started admitting they would sing under their breath “Schoolhouse Rock’s” song to the preamble during tests.

No doubt, the 94-year-old Dorough who died this week had a long established musical career that he will be remembered for–in fact, his discursive style influenced Mose Allison.

But he will always be remembered as the man who taught children about math, grammar, and science in unforgettable musical morsels.