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The Very Best Schoolhouse Rock Songs by Bob Dorough

Hooking up words and phrases and clauses… Photo: ABC

Bob Dorough, the musician best known for writing and performing some of the most beloved Schoolhouse Rock songs, has died at 94. For anyone who grew up learning grammar and multiplication tables by listening to songs like “Conjunction Junction” or “Three Is a Magic Number,” it’s like a light in our childhood playrooms has gone out.

Generations of kids have been introduced to the tracks Dorough wrote or sang, including all 11 of the songs on Multiplication Rock (which kick-started the Schoolhouse Rock phenomenon in 1973), as well as several favorites that were part of the collections that focused on grammar, American history, science and, later, money and ecoconsciousness. But for people who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, when the original Schoolhouse Rock shorts were shown during Saturday morning cartoon commercial breaks, Dorough’s death has particular poignancy. Listening to these songs today is a reminder of what a talent he was: Yes, all these tunes about pronouns and women’s suffrage were designed to educate children, but they succeeded because they were really good, really catchy, and smartly crafted pieces of music.

As a tribute to Dorough, here’s a ranking of all 33 of the Schoolhouse Rock songs to which he contributed, either as a composer, performer, or both. It’s a testament to his genius that if you asked me to rank these again tomorrow, I’d probably put them in a slightly different order. They’re all, to borrow a Dorough lyric, magic numbers.

(Please note that this list only includes Dorough’s works, which is why you won’t find “I’m Just a Bill” — written by Dave Frishberg and performed by Jack Sheldon — and some other Schoolhouse Rock classics like “Interplanet Janet” and “Interjection.”)

33. “The Three Rs” (2009; music by Dorough)

This is, without question, the worst song on this list, and it’s through no fault of Dorough’s. When Disney issued the Schoolhouse Rock: Earth DVD in 2009, apparently someone thought it would be a good idea to teach kids about recycling by recycling the music from Dorough’s masterpiece “Three Is a Magic Number,” getting Jack Johnson to write some new, environmentally conscious lyrics, then recruiting Mitchel Musso from Hannah Montana to perform it in “hip” Disney fashion. I almost didn’t include this one since Dorough only has a credit on it because they ripped off his melody. But then I changed my mind because watching this video made me think of another R-word: ridiculous.

32. “Report From the North Pole” (2009; music by Dorough, who also co-performs)

The bottom half of this list is inevitably dominated by the newer Schoolhouse Rock songs, which, as a general rule, don’t hold up quite as well as the originals. This track isn’t quite as catchy as the others, although it does have value as a lesson about climate change. Maybe someone can show this to our president and Scott Pruitt?

31. “The Trash Can Band” (2009; co-performed by Dorough)

The song isn’t terribly inspired, but the vocals in it are nice. Every time you hear Dorough on any Schoolhouse work, it’s like a certificate of authenticity.

30. “No More Kings” (1975; co-performed by Dorough)

Lynn Ahrens — co-writer of Broadway’s Anastasia and a major contributor to Schoolhouse Rock — handles most of the vocal work on this song, so it’s not really a showcase for Dorough. Plus, its take on the conflict between America and Great Britain glides over the part where we steal land from Native Americans.

29. “The Check’s in the Mail” (1996; written and co-performed by Dorough)

Created as part of the Schoolhouse series on money, this one ranks lower than others because it’s not as timeless. If it were written now, it would be called “Venmo Me,” I guess?

28. “Dollars and Sense” (1994; co-performed by Dorough)

A country-fied explainer about how to save cash.

27. “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” (1975; written and performed by Dorough)

Dorough’s vocals are wonderfully spirited in this recounting of the roots of the Revolutionary War. There’s also a lot of information packed into this piece, perhaps too much for certain kids — okay, fine, too much for me — to fully understand on first listen.

26. “Windy and the Windmills” (2009; music by Dorough, who also co-performed)

The lyrics to this Schoolhouse Rock: Earth number make it easy for children to understand the benefit of wind power — “You can use me and reuse me and I won’t pollute your air,” sings the wind cloud— and Dorough’s music has a patriotic vibe that suggests relying on alternative-energy sources is the most American thing we can do.

25. “Don’t Be a Carbon Sasquatch” (2009; written and performed by Dorough)

Using Bigfoot to teach about carbon footprints is very clever. Again, can someone send this to Donald Trump?

24. “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College” (2002; co-written and co-performed by Dorough)

Created as a DVD extra, this song does for the Electoral College what “I’m Just a Bill” did for the legislative process.

23. “Tyrannosaurus Debt” (1996; co-performed by Dorough)

Dorough’s playful growl on “It has an awesome appetite / Tyrannosaurus Debt” is just perfect on this funny but useful lesson about the national debt. I say again: Can someone please send this to Trump? Actually, you know what, just send him the entire Schoolhouse Rock box set.

22. “This for That” (1996; performed by Dorough)

This explanation of the exchange of goods and services, set to a reggae beat, is the catchiest of the financially focused Schoolhouse Rock tunes.

21. “Mother Necessity” (1976; written and co-performed by Dorough)

This brief history of significant inventors keeps building in intensity in a way that reflects the way neurons fire when a person comes up with a great idea. Slyly, this song also gives a woman credit for every notable thing done by a man, so bonus points for that, Mr. Dorough!

20. “Electricity, Electricity” (1979; music and lyrics by Dorough)

Listen to that jazzy chorus just a couple times — “E-lec-tri-city, Eeeeee-lectricity” — and you’ll never say the word electricity the same way again.

19. “The Little Things We Do” (co-performed by Dorough)

Written by Ahrens, this is the most successful of the newer Schoolhouse numbers, resurrecting Mr. Morton from The Tale of Mr. Morton and using him and his family to impart important information about energy conservation. How can you not smile at lyrics like: “Instead of turning up the thermostat, I can put on a sweater and hug the cat?”

18. “The Good Eleven” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

Multiplication Rock is Dorough’s masterwork, an entire album written and almost entirely performed by him that created the template for Schoolhouse Rock. It’s terrific not just as a teaching tool, but as a collection of eclectic, genuinely enjoyable songs, including this one about the heavenly ease of multiplying numbers by eleven.

17. “Busy Prepositions” (1993; written and co-performed by Dorough)

If you don’t look at the animation and listen solely to the audio, which also features vocals from Schoolhouse Rock great Jack Sheldon, this sounds exactly like one of the original songs — even though it was written and recorded 20 years later.

16. “Lucky Seven Sampson” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

Is it possible to listen to “Lucky Seven Sampson” and be unhappy? I mean, probably, but it’s hard to figure out how.

15. “The Four-Legged Zoo” (1973; written and co-performed by Dorough)

A round of applause for the children’s chorus that makes this upbeat math lesson even more inviting to kids.

14. “Little Twelvetoes” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

As a kid, this wasn’t one of my favorites, but when I introduced my son to Schoolhouse Rock years ago, I really gravitated toward it. Call it Multiplication Prog Rock.

13. “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” (1976; music by Bob Dorough)

This groovy song introduced me and tons of other kids to the word “suffrage,” not to mention the idea that women actually had to fight for the right to vote. It was a real wake-up call. Also, it was funky.

12. “The Body Machine” (1979; co-performed by Dorough)

Everybody sing: “I’m a machine / You’re a machine / Everybody that you know, you know, they are machines…”

11. “I Got Six” (1973; written by Dorough)

Dorough’s be-bop bona fides really come through on this one, accented by the vocals from noted musician Grady Tate, who died last year. Throw this on a jukebox at around 11 p.m. at any bar and people won’t even know they’re learning about multiples of six. They’ll just be bopping their heads like crazy.

10. “Figure Eight” (1973; written by Dorough)

The delicate, almost mournful piano and Blossom Dearie’s gentle voice make this song sound as fragile as the thin ice on which a skater might actually make a figure eight. It’s lovely and a little melancholy and that last “infini-teeeeeee” breaks your heart.

9. “Naughty Number Nine” (1973; written by Dorough)

It’s pretty brilliant to write a blues number about the hardest number to learn to multiply. On top of that, there are legitimately good math hacks in here. (Six times nine is just 60 minus six? Mind blown!) Plus, who doesn’t want to learn about numbers from a cat who smokes, plays pool, and looks like he’s in the Mafia?

8. “Ready or Not Here I Come” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

For as long as I live, I will count like this song whenever I count by fives. For as long as I live, I will also love the little voice that hollers, “Aye!

7. “Elementary, My Dear” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

As I was composing this list, I thought, “Wait, is ‘Elementary, My Dear’ that good of a song?” Then I hit play on the YouTube video and heard that, “40 days and 40 nights, didn’t it rain children?” and I went: “Oh my God, this is great!” It’s a gospel song about Noah’s ark that doubles as a lesson about the number two, and it’s peppy as hell.

6. “Verb: That’s What’s Happenin’” (1973; written by Dorough)

If someone decided to teach kids about verbs and write an alternate theme song for Shaft at the same time, they’d basically make this song.

5. “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” (1976; music by Dorough)

The piano on this pronoun lesson is marvelous and the lyrics, written by Kathy Mandary, are wonderfully Seussian.

4. “My Hero Zero” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

Here’s why this song is great: It’s about how the number zero works, but it’s also this empowerment anthem about how even a nobody is somebody. (“We could never reach a star without you, Zero, my hero, how wonderful you are.”) Think about it in the second context and you might just tear up while you listen. Not that I did that earlier today or anything.

3. “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” (1974; written and performed by Dorough)

Like some of the best Schoolhouse Rock songs, this one uses acceleration and speed to its advantage. It’s also an A-level earworm.

2. “Conjunction Junction” (1973; music and lyrics by Dorough)

This is probably the best-known Schoolhouse Rock song, and it’s obvious why: It just plain jams and its lyrics are on the absolute button, explaining connector words while commanding the listener to sing along. It’s an all-timer and Dorough’s greatest hit.

1. “Three Is a Magic Number” (1973; written and performed by Dorough)

As great as “Conjunction Junction” is, “Three Is a Magic Number” is downright beautiful. It’s not just about the fact that three times seven is 21, although it’s nice to have that confirmed in song form. It’s a life-affirming prayer of a tune, something you croon softly to your firstborn child: “A man and a woman had a little baby / Yes, they did / They had three in the family/And that’s a magic number.”

The Very Best Schoolhouse Rock Songs by Bob Dorough