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.

I Hate Our New Area Code

Columbus, Ohio has a new area code.  For decades, we’ve been the 614 area code.  It’s snappy.  It’s catchy.  It’s got the traditional lower number in the middle configuration, like the 202 or 212 or 312 area codes that are used by big cities in the country.  Columbus is so associated with its long-standing area code that (614) is the name of one local magazine.

But now Columbus has a new area code, too — 380.  It’s clunky.  It looks like the kind of number that would pop up on your phone when it’s an annoying telemarketing call from India.  And even though most people who live in Columbus couldn’t tell you what the new area code is if you asked, we’ve already grown to hate it.  In fact, “hate” doesn’t even begin to capture the depth of feeling we have for the new area code.  “Despise it with every fiber of our being” comes a bit closer, but still might not even get there.

0gwaf8e946du6_6228Why?  Because 380 is an overlapping area code.  That means that, rather than creating some new area code out in the suburbs defined by a specific geographic region, the 380 phone numbers will be doled out to people who live in the 614 area code territory.

It’s not that we mind 380ers in our midst, like they’re unclean or something.  No, it’s because now we have to dial the area code to make what used to be local calls.  So if I want to call Kish to tell her that I am heading home after the end of the work day, I have to dial three extra digits.  That might not sound like much of a burden, but understand that Kish’s cell phone number is firmly engraved onto every synapse in my brain, right there with the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies.  When I pick up the phone and think “time to call Kish,” the mental reflexes kick in and the finger punches the number automatically — and there’s no 614 area code involved.  The 380 area code is basically requiring me to reverse decades of consistent mental conditioning.

We’re told that we need the new 380 area code because the 614 area code is running out of numbers.  It’s not just new cell phone numbers, either:  we’re told that now vending machines and other devices that take credit cards need phone numbers for “machine-to-machine” communications.

Really?  I need to rewire my brain just so an office worker can use a credit card to buy a Zagnut bar?  Well, I say the vending machines can bite me.  And the 380 area code can, too.

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.

Mr. Jingeling On The Brain

The human brain is strange.  Why is it that I sometimes struggle to remember the names of people at my office but can recall — with sharp, striking clarity — every word to the stupid theme song of Mr. Jingeling?

If you lived in northeastern Ohio during the early 1960s, you knew Mr. Jingeling as a guy who appeared on TV around Christmas.  He was Santa’s top assistant, and he had a prissy hairstyle like that of the guard who answered when Dorothy and friends knocked on the door to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.  He carried a large key ring at all times, for reasons his song explained:

Mr. Jingeling, how you ting-a-ling,

Keeper of the Keys!

On Halle’s seventh floor, we’ll be looking for

You to turn the Keys!

Keeping track of Santa’s pack

And Treasure House of toys,

Wind-up things that Santa brings

To all the good little girls and boys

Mr. Jingeling, how you ting-a-ling,

Keeper of the Keys!

On Halle’s Seventh floor we’ll be looking for

You to turn the Keys!

It is mildly disturbing to realize that, indelibly imprinted deep within the crevices and synapses of my brain, is a theme song about a fictional Christmas TV character on a show that has been off the air for decades, sponsored by a long defunct Cleveland department store.  What the hell else is buried in there — that is, aside from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies?

In The Days Of Hai Karate

Why do you remember TV commercials from 40 years ago, but not the name of somebody you met five minutes ago?  Who knows?  But for some reason this stupid Hai Karate commercial, featuring the dorky glasses-wearing guy fending off an excited young woman, is engrained on my neural synapses as surely and inexorably as, say, the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies.

What did Hai Karate smell like?  Why would any guy want to wear after shave?  And why would any guy want to use karate on some girl who was interested in a make out session?  The commercial left these central questions unanswered, to be carefully pondered by the confused, soon-to-be-teenage boy who was trying to figure out what was cool and what wasn’t.