Nothing is more deeply embedded in the memories of pop culture’s children than the television theme song. Before the advent of musical notation, novice monks memorized the entire body of Gregorian chant, listening and singing many hours every day. The t.v. generation had its core repertoire drummed into its skulls after school, in prime time, or on Saturday morning by an electronic box. This corpus of mediocre music will be lodged even unto Alzheimer’s in the mental hard drive of those so indoctrinated. That I know the words and melody to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island more profoundly than any piece by Bach is a fact that would send me reeling into depression if I thought about it too much.
Around each theme song orbits vast constellations, even galaxies, of mental associations. Play me Star Trek and I can smell the house I lived in when I was seven-years-old. I can see the phantom casserole my mother was trying to foist on me and my siblings under cover of darkened room, the dubious culinary concoction glowing in the warm flicker of the television. Energized by the soaring theme song in the opening credits, the Starship Enterprise hits warp speed. Life and an hour of Star Trek stretches before me. The casserole gets eaten without complaint.
The typical CD collections of television theme songs plays on just this kind of nostalgia, sometimes naive, but more often self-ironizing. Among the many other layers of enjoyment and disgust that attend such compilations is a bookish, trainspotting urge to demonstrate a command of this trite body of song. There is nothing more impressive and at the same time dispiriting than participating in a hum-off of theme songs or listening to a pop-junky virtuoso whistle merrily through his catalog of favorites.
Yes, there is also simple good fun to be had from this material. Why deny the appeal of trumpeter Clark Terry’s experiments with the theme from the Flintstones turning it into a pleasant bebop outing? By drawing on a nearly universal cultural reference, Terry made high-speed jazz accessible to many more than would otherwise have listened, though I suspect few, if any, ventured beyond it to the more demanding pleasures of Charlie Parker’s Koko and the like.
Aside from the way such uses of theme songs can play archly with the cultural associations they elicit in listeners, such musical practices also enjoy a rare advantage over other forms of expression. Treating material so ingrained in an audience allows the musician a reference point—a perhaps a series of reference points—against which to demonstrate her art and have it delight, uplift, and have it be judged and appreciated. In Bach’s many settings of the seminal Lutheran chorale A Mighty Fortress is Our God, he was treating a text and a melody that were the bedrock not only of Lutheran society but at the core of individual and shared human knowledge. Those listening could usually latch on to the reference point and thus be astonished by the composer’s engagement with the melody, even if they did could not follow all the contortions of his artifice.
In an age when the arts of memory have been ceded to Google, there is great potential in using material still thriving in the human mind, music accessible with an immediacy and emotional resonance that the internet still cannot provide.
Each generation has its own store of such melodies, accumulated when the memory was most receptive, from early childhood to the teens. Born in the counterculture year of 1968 in Edmonton, Canada, jazz pianist John Stetch has now confronted one such chapter of the pop culture corpus with his most recent CD “TV Trio”. It is a masterpiece of transformative genius, a glorious exercise in defeating expectations and finding beauty in unexpected places. This recording is also complex but never pedantic commentary on musical memory and emotion. The repertoire is from the 60s and 70s and 80s, heard by the artist, I guess, either when the shows in question were in syndication or still in production.
The disc kicks off with the theme from The Waltons, which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1981. The show was pure whitebread family values, projected most endearingly in the oft-parodied closing scene in which the numerous Walton kids, all bunking in the same room, wished each other good night as darkness descended on the cabin: “Good night Jim-Bob … Good night Mary Ellen … Good night John Boy” etc. While wayward Jason Walton did do some honky- tonk piano playing over the run of the show, jazz is about the last thing you’d think of if you ever happen to think of The Waltons.
The original theme song is a fast waltz with a folksy, pastoral feel. It’s safe, cozy, reassuring. If the music evokes dance it is of harmlessly chaste variety: fragrant meadows and long skirts, not sweat and smoke. There is a diluted dose of Copland Americana in the harmony, and the melody is all disarming simplicity.
Stetch begins his rendition of The Waltons with a short piano introduction that tells us within in the first second that he’ll be cutting hard against the grain of the pop-culture trees he’s felled for milling on this CD. He gets our attention with brisk and bluesy right-hand riffs over a pedal point in the left hand. The snap of Rodney Green’s snare then shatters the downhome idyll of Hollywood’s most endearing hillbillies.
When the familiar melody sounds forth in the tenor range it does so as if from the unconscious of the listener’s mind (that is, if he is of a certain right age). With Doug Weiss joining in on bass, Stetch’s thick, harmonically adventurous chords and bitingly syncopated rhythmic counterpoint completely reconfigure the theme and its meaning. Unmistakable, the tune has nonetheless been utterly transformed. Whereas the original is meant to sweep the viewer into an hour’s worth of rural nostalgia, Stetch’s reading is alert, always searching, hesitating, then jolting forward. Rather than calm and assurance we enjoy the greater pleasures of an edgy excitement. Whereas the theme, like such television programs themselves, has as its main goal reinforcing the comfortable, Stetch’s Waltons revels in the unexpected, the unpredictable, even the dangerous. This Waltons, like the rest of Stetch’s constantly delightful and imaginative CD is also a lot more fun than the original: complicated contrarian, beautiful, and alive. And it’s a hugely swinging affair: after dissecting the theme, the stop-start arrangement is then let loose into an up-tempo feast, dripping with grease and garnished with be-bop filligree, before finally veering into a bumptious unison chorus with bass, accompanied by affirmative and groovy rim clicks on Green’s snare.
Never has a bit of charming Hollywood fakery been so magnificently relocated from its back-lot mountain to the gritty tenements of jazz. But Stetch is too filled with ideas to be satisfied with the simple transformation of a saccharine pop-culture original. There is also more complex, though still supremely fun, cultural commentary to be heard in this inspiring trio rendition.
When the theme returns it is dreamier, less sharply faceted, as if the brave pronouncements of the opening and the boldly confident improvisations are now feeling the pull of an irresistible nostalgia. The circulating harmonies of a tag, punctuated here and there by jagged chords, suggest a further drift to reverie. But a bluesy blast gives the last word to the prankster’s laugh, before a wink of a bass-tag ends these four minutes of delight, surprise, straight-ahead jazz joy, and wide-ranging commentary on a pop-culture standard.
The Waltons alone is worth the price of admission, and foretells in microcosm, though not in the specificity of ingenious detail, the riches to be reveled in on the subsequent tracks.
These include the rapturous flight of Star Trek, which affords opportunity both for an appreciation of the arranger’s seemingly limitless imagination and opens up plenty of unexplored space for ebullient, swinging improvisation. The ten-gallon heroism of Dallas is quashed, delivered instead as an elegiac, minor ballad.
The theme from All My Children, the shortest track on the album, finds exquisite beauty in the most unlikely place, leaving one to ask how this cheap day-time smut could have born the sweetest, most touching, of all songs.
The Price is Right begins as pure affirmation, but Come Sunday gospel touches quickly reveal another side to the rampant mid-morning consumer orgy. And behind Door Number Three: a fiercely swinging piano trio!
Stetch’s Flintstones is a minor bluesy thing, velvety and sardonic. If only Wilma had been this sexy.
Stetch begins his solo piano treatment of Sandford and Son by muting the original’s brash funk and examining it first as introspective prelude. There are, however, intimations of power, and these emerge gradually, periodically giving way to pointillistic images, which are in turn smashed by sledgehammer chords bringing us back to the junkyard.
There’s also the grooviest Love Boat you’ve ever heard; a fragmented Six Million Dollar, dismantled and put together as a demon Latin dancer; Rocky and Bullwinkle made to do an eccentric waltz stolen from those Waltons.
But what about those members of other generations who don’t recognize these tunes? These listeners won’t have the same access to the emotional and musical complexities of Stetch’s engagement with this material. His uplifting conversion of the banal to the complex and refined might well be lost on them. What you are left with without this pre-history, not to say baggage, is simply this: glorious art.
And for children and adults of all ages it’s the perfect Christmas gift—to be unwrapped in front of the t.v.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org