I did not learn about the American Revolution in school. I learned about it from a three-minute Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, broadcast into our “TV room” on Saturday mornings in the mid-Seventies, scheduled like a commercial between my shows – Land of the Lost, Super Friends, Speed Racer, and the like.
Like a lot of my generation (Gen X, technically), I watched a lot of television. It boggles my mind to recall the hours spent slack-jawed, eating cereal, passive before the cathode ray as a beautiful day bloomed outside my window. But to be fair, because of Schoolhouse Rock I can honestly say it was not all wasted time. (Also Sesame Street, the Electric Company, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood provided valuable sustenance and education.)
By the mid-Seventies, I’d already learned some math and a fair amount of grammar from Schoolhouse Rock, which had debuted its ingeniously compressed, educational animated short films nationally in 1973, when I was eight. Much of the material was written and performed by jazz great Bob Dorough (1923-2018), irresistible, instantly memorable melodies to which I still recite my times tables, catchy tunes that help me remember a noun is a person, place, or thing, and the words and, but, and or are conjunctions. I will be humming Dorough’s Schoolhouse Rock tunes on my deathbed.
As the Bicentennial neared, Schoolhouse Rock launched America Rock, a series including “The Preamble” – about the Constitution – and “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” – about the American Revolution. The former set the Constitution’s preamble to a tune I soon sang incessantly (and can still sing).
The lyrics introduced me to the terms “ordain,” “posterity,” and of course “preamble.” The latter filled in a lot of blanks about the war itself, and taught me Colonel William Prescott was the Bunker Hill commander who said, “Don’t start shooting ’til you see the whites of their eyes.” For some reason, that detail went deep, perhaps because the phrase “the whites of their eyes” was also in the Paul McCartney & Wings song “Rock Show,” which was out at the same time, and which I loved and inadvertently memorized. (Paul sings: “Temperatures rise when you see the whites of their eyes!”)
“The Shot Heard ’Round the World” also taught me that, but for aid from France and Spain, the colonies would have lost. And even though the animated characters – including a young boy – wield bayonet-tipped guns aplenty, and there’s much smoke and action, the cartoon, like all Schoolhouse Rock videos, is bloodless of course. It would be years – though not that many – before I would see a filmed representation of battle that attempted to portray the attendant horror and gore.
In this three-minute song and cartoon, I also learned about the Minutemen, Paul Revere, and that the Crown enlisted Hessians – German soldiers – to help fight George Washington’s army. The British general who surrendered, ending the conflict? Cornwallis.
It’s no wonder the kid who entered his teens singing so much of his education would gravitate towards music, clearly the repository not only of pleasure and community, but knowledge. As Bob Dorough said at the beginning of every Schoolhouse Rock episode, “Knowledge is power!”
Other than feeling “informed,” what one can actually do with the power of knowledge, I did not yet know. And what of the power of ignorance? How do those forces interact? I would find out. This would be an education in itself, one that continues.