I am too young to have watched Schoolhouse Rock on television, but my older American friends say it was the Saturday morning shit back in the 1970s and 80s. On just before Scooby Doo, it was a hip-cum-dorky Sesame Street for preteens that used animation and catchy tunes to teach grammar, mathematics, history and other subjects. It was a huge success. If you bring the show up to an American who was young back then they will undoubtedly, with a nostalgic smile and a sparkle in their eyes, say something like, “Of course I know Schoolhouse Rock! Fuck ya man! Conjunction Junction, My Hero Zero, them songs teach me all about math and the grammar.”

Or maybe, as a way of showing their devotion, they might sing the first two lines to the song responsible for the very creation of the show itself,

Three, it’s a magic number
Yes it is, it’s a magic number

If they only know the first two lines, it’s OK. They are the hook and touchstone throughout the song. Also, the lines that immediately follow are pretty abstract. They seem more like a Freemason riddle than a lesson about multiplication,

Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
Was born a three, and that’s a magic number.

The past and the present and the future.
Faith and Hope and Charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three as a magic number.

Three is a magic number was written and performed by bebopping jazzman Bob Dorough. It is safe to say the catchiness of Dorough’s Jobimian melodies, languid rhythms and mnemonic lyrics are the whole reason that Schoolhouse rock succeeded in the first place. David McCall had hired Dorough to write a couple songs for a children's textbook, but when he heard Three is a magic number, he recognized it was bigger than any textbook. Some storyboards were made up, McCall pitched Schoolhouse Rock to ABC, and the rest is history. But don't give McCall too much credit, the song is as catchy as velcro on a goat’s ass.

It opens with a sort of laid back Paul Simon in Africa vibe. A child’s broken harpsichord and steel drum trace chords while Dorough’s voice floats like a hot breeze over the yellow grass of a nameless savannah, each utterance pregnant with a meaning beyond meaning. And by the time the multiplying starts, at the fifth verse when you hear “3,6,9”, the water has burst and the search for meaning is replaced by that polarizing feeling that life is about to happen.

However, as much as the first two verses are a softly delivered spiritual riddle, the third and fourth are decidedly not. Perhaps by design, to make the math section seem more exciting, these verses are teeth scratchingly mundane. Morality and metaphysics are traded in for the sexlessly physical world of tables and triangles. Frankly, if the song has a weak point, it is the lyrics in these verses. If only because of the subject choices and the strange assertion that you need three legs to make a table stand.

It takes three legs to make a tripod or to make a table stand,
And it takes three wheels to make a vehicle called a tricycle
And every triangle has three corners,
Every triangle has three sides,
No more, no less,
You don't have to guess
That it's three
Cant you see?
It's a magic number

After tackling the philosophical, and the physical, only the filial remained. Indeed, Dorough ends the descriptive section of the song with a friendly verse exploring the threeness in relation to the family. Interestingly, this verse returns at the end of the song, after the strictly mathematical section has finished.

A man and a woman had a little baby
Yeah they did
And there were three in the family
And that's a magic number.
And then the math section begins,
3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30.
3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30.

Multiply backwards from three times ten,
Three time ten is thirty,
three times nine is twenty-seven,

Three times eight is twenty-four,
three times seven is twenty-one,
three times six is eighteen,
three times five is fifteen,
three times four is twelve,
and three times three is nine,
and three times two is six,
And three times one is three,
of course.

Now take the pattern once more,
Three! . . .3-6-9
Twelve! . . .12-15-18
Twenty-one!. . .21-24-27. . .30

Now multiply from 10 backwards.
Three time ten is thirty (Keep going!),
three times nine is twenty-seven,
three times eight is twenty-four,
three times seven is twenty-one,
three times six is eighteen,
three times five is fifteen,
Three times four is twelve,
and three times three is nine,
and three times two is six,
and three times one...
What is it?!
Yeah, That's a magic number.

A man and a woman had a little baby.
Yes, they did.
They had three in the family.
That's a magic number.



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