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The Insidious Legacy of the “Andy Griffith Show” Theme

I’m not blaming Andy Griffith—not the actor, who died this week in his home state of North Carolina at 86, the age he has always seemed to me. It’s not his fault that the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show had the impact that it had on me—and, I presume, on others who found themselves watching the series at some point during in its eight-year network run in the 1960s or in its perpetual cycle of cable reruns. The tune is, without question, one of the catchiest trifles ever composed for commercial consumption. It’s bouncy and swinging, with an angular, syncopated melody. In the canonical rendition for the opening and closing credits of the show, the tune is whistled (probably by Fed Lowery, who whistled professionally for the Hollywood studios, perhaps by the song’s composer Earl Hagen) over accompaniment by a spare little guitar-based rhythm section. There were actually two versions, slightly different—the original had a bit more snap—done for the original black-and-white credits and the later color credits (and it’s possible that Lowery and Hagen each did one of them).

The tune was introduced, with the show, in 1960, the same year as the debut of The Flintstones, which also had a distinctly jazzy theme. In fact, the cartoon theme “Meet the Flintstones,” by the Hanna-Barbera house composer Hoyt Curtin, is built on the “rhythm changes” of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”—the same chords that are the foundation of innumerable jazz standards, including Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” and at least four songs by Charlie Parker (“Anthropology,” “Dexterity,” “Steeplechase,” and “Moose the Mooche”).

What’s insidious about both TV themes is the efficiency with which they turn jazz into jingles and how, through the effect of endless repetition—show after show, week after week, year after year—they deaden the listener’s ears to the value of the music’s sources. I was raised on TV themes—they were the lingua franca of my generation—and I am convinced that one of the reasons I grew up thinking of swing as lite, old-fashioned white music, and not a sophisticated, elementally African-American art, is that I had the sound of unshakably catchy commercial reductions of jazz ideas like The Andy Griffith Show theme stuck in my head.

Once more: I’m not blaming Griffith, who was musically sophisticated, played trombone and guitar, got his undergraduate degree (from the University of North Carolina) in music, and starred in Broadway musicals before moving to Mayberry. In fact, Griffin once recorded a nice vocal version of the Hagen theme song with lyrics written by Everett Sloane, the actor who played Bernstein in Citizen Kane.