The Great Theme Song Dispute

Recently I was embroiled in an earth-shakingly important discussion. The topic was which TV show theme song was better: The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island? We weren’t debating whether they were the best theme songs in TV history. (That exalted designation must certainly be reserved for the theme song to Mission: Impossible.) Instead, we were engaged in a careful comparative analysis of these two theme songs, both of which tell a story that sets the context for the TV show itself.

I would have thought that this was an easy call. In my view, the uplifting tale of a happy, hard-working rustic who discovers oil on his property thanks to an errant rifle shot at some furry woodlands creature and then moves to Beverly Hills–all told to the accompaniment of some rollicking pickin’ music–is clearly superior to the improbable story of seven passengers on a boat who, thanks to an undetected storm, find themselves cast away on an unknown island within boat ride distance from southern California. But to my astonishment, other participants in the conversation, after giving the matter the serious consideration it deserves, voted for the Gilligan’s Island theme over The Beverly Hillbillies.

That conclusion is just wrong on many levels, so let’s set the record straight. The Beverly Hillbillies music–The Ballad of Jed Clampett, performed by Flatt & Scruggs, with its banjo-picking frenzy as the Clampetts drive into Beverly Hills–blows the forgettable Gilligan’s Island tune out of the water. The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was released in 1962, hit number 1 on the Billboard country music chart, was on the charts for 20 weeks, and even rose to number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island was never released as a single, so far as I can tell. Musically, it’s like arguing about whether the Beatles are better than the Four Freshmen.

And the lyrics for The Beverly Hillbillies are better, too, telling a classically American Horatio Alger-type story in which the “kinfolk” offered supportive advice to the upwardly mobile Clampetts. It includes some great rhymes, too, like “Jed” and “fed” and “food” and “crude.” Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, featured the annoying repetition of “a three-hour tour” and made clear that the show’s characters were caricatures defined by their circumstances (“the millionaire and his wife,” “the movie star,” and “the rest”) rather than giving us the kind of rich context we learned about the Clampett clan.

And the key test is which song you’re less likely to forget in your dotage. For me, that’s undoubtedly The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

I rest my case.

A Sad Note In The Bluegrass World

Earl Scruggs died yesterday at age 88.  Scruggs was a fabulous banjo player who was half of Flatt and Scruggs, the legendary musical duo with the even more legendary name.

Most Americans know of Earl Scruggs’ music through his performance on the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies.  Many people beyond a certain age feel pangs of guilt about the fact that they love that rousing ballad about Jed and his discovery of black gold, which is one of the most memorable TV theme songs ever.  Scruggs’ unique three-finger picking style helped to make that song iconic, and also introduced a generation of musically curious people to bluegrass music and the joys of songs like Foggy Mountain Breakdown.  If you liked the sound track of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, you liked the music of Earl Scruggs.

Bluegrass music has a bad reputation among some people — mostly self-consciously highbrow people who are only dimly aware of it in the context of corn pone shows like Hee Haw and who have never really listened to the music itself.  It’s as much American “roots” music as blues or jazz or ragtime; born in the hills and dales of the American countryside and first played using fiddles, banjos, and other instruments that the folks of the village made themselves or had already available in their households.  It was Saturday night music, designed to get people dancing and moving after a week of work.  The structure of good bluegrass music is pretty sophisticated, but mostly it’s fun to listen to and guaranteed to get your toes tapping.  Check out Earl Scruggs’ performance of Foggy Mountain Breakdown (with Steve Martin) below if you don’t believe me.

Rest in peace, Earl Scruggs.  You helped to open the door to an entire musical genre for many of us.