Schoolhouse Schlock 

The mnemonic melodies of the Science Songwriters Association

During the retro-revelry of the early '90s, fewer things were held more dearly than '70s Saturday morning cartoons. The patriarchs of this era were Sid and Marty Krofft, followed in a close second by Schoolhouse Rock. De La Soul was the first to refer to these mnemonic melodies, sampling "Three Is a Magic Number" on its debut CD in '89. "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just a Bill" soon became clever catchphrases for twentysomethings who seemed to mourn the long-lost days of their stolen youth.

But even as children, some of us knew that Schoolhouse Rock was a crock. The songs were good, the cartoons were cute, but as for learning anything, forget it. To this day, do any of us really know how a bill gets passed? And what the hell is a conjunction? These rhyming "educational" songs are adults' way of reaching out to kids to "make learning fun," but like most well-intentioned ideas conceived by grown-ups, they don't work. Remember the Newbery Awards? Those go out each year to the best children's books, as chosen by librarians and teachers. For kids in the know, seeing that golden badge on a paperback meant A) The book would probably take place on a prairie, and B) The dog would die. This is the stuff adults like, not kids. And it's the same with the so-called "musical mnemonics," memory devices hidden in songs. Grown-ups think they are the key to unlocking tomorrow's astronauts; kids just think they are good songs.

Carl Winter disagrees. A professor at UC Davis, he takes his traveling minstrel show about food safety all over the country, raising awareness around botulism, E. coli, and bioengineered food. "Music has a way of reaching people," says Winter. "Quite honestly, I never thought it would become a major focus of my educational programs, but as this has progressed, the power of the music to reach these audiences has grown." Winter travels around to science conferences and the occasional bar mitzvah with his Casio and a songbook filled with titles like "Don't Get Sicky with It" (sung to the tune of "Getting Jiggy with It" by Will Smith); "Stomachache Tonight" (sung to "Heartache Tonight" by the Eagles); "They Might Kill You"/"We Are the Microbes" (sung to the tune of "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" by Queen; "USDA" ("YMCA"); and the best one, "Beware La Vaca Loca," a caution against mad cow disease set to the tune of "La Vida Loca."

Winter is right about one thing: his show is great. He's the Weird Al-Falfa of the food science world, a big hit with his biology colleagues. And who among us wouldn't want to see a chemist rock out on the keyboards for a roomful of people clapping and dancing off the beat? He is in fact a member of a rather large subculture of musicians, the Science Songwriters Association. Tom Lehrer is probably the earliest-known science songwriter, creating physics and math ditties for audiences already drunk on the milk of Victor Borge yet still hungry for a little left-brain action. Members of the SSA are mostly teachers who swap songs they've come up with about lipids and bromeliads, but there are also those who seem to make their sole income from touring the country's malls, libraries, and school lunchrooms. In the hands of the right tunesmith, Ludacris's "You's a Hoe" becomes "Hydroxyls Everywhere" ("Use H-O/Use H-O") or "Baby Got Back" becomes "Baby Got Bond," about covalent bonds.

Winter says he's still kind of blurry as to how this whole science-song thing started for him, but it began with a parody of "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits, which he used to poke fun at the academic world ("I want my, I want my, I want my PhD ... ") That morphed into food safety songs, and now he's at a point in his career where he's having to turn down offers to perform. But is he really teaching people how to avoid food poisoning? Or is he just entertaining us about the perils of diarrhea? "Music is so ubiquitous," he says, referring to its place in the lives of young people. "But in terms of education, we've barely tapped into its potential. It's not a replacement for all of the other information, but it's a wonderful compliment." That's certainly true. Winter admits that a song can't force kids to comprehend a new concept, but rather helps them memorize its components. Besides, most of his audiences are adult colleagues who just need to let loose once in a while. "I play for a lot of science conferences. Folks have the opportunity to let their hair down, which in the scientific community is kind of different." Just avoid the shellfish in the buffet, Poindexter.

Carl Winter's songs (and live videos!) can be found on his Web site,


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