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Theme songs: Meet the Black music and musicians who serenade us from the small screen

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12.09.2021

While mourning the passing of actor Michael K. Williams last week, I revisited some of the episodes of the HBO classic series The Wire and was reminded of the theme song: Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole.” The song was performed by different artists each season, including The Blind Boys of Alabama—whose version was selected for the series’ premiere season—as well as the Neville Brothers, Waits himself, and a group of Black Baltimore teenagers.

Listening to these very different versions got me thinking about Black musicians and music in other television series. Though white artists and composers predominate scoring and performing for television series, I was elated to find Black music offerings in various genres. Some I was familiar with, and others which I had not heard until I started searching.

So for today’s #BlackMusicSunday, join me in a musical expedition on the small screen, starting with The Wire.

In 2008, The Chicago Tribune explored “The music behind 'The Wire.'

"The Wire" doesn't do much of anything the traditional TV way, and its unorthodoxy extends to its opening theme. It's the same old song each season -- "Way Down in the Hole," a scary gospel-blues that Tom Waits composed about 20 years ago -- but interpreted by a different group or artist.

Initially, a revered African-American gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama, sang the song. Waits himself got a turn the second season. The Neville Brothers, out of New Orleans, did the honors in Season 3. For Season 4, when the series' focus widened yet again, this time to take in man-children in the Baltimore projects trying to say no to drugs and crime, the series' creators turned to five Baltimore teenagers -- Ivan Ashford, Markel Steele, Avery Bargasse, Cameron Brown and Tariq Al-Sabir -- collectively known as DoMaJe. For the final season, Waits' 23rd Psalm sentiments are sung by alt-country star (and former heroin addict) Steve Earle, who is also reprising his recurring role in the series as a recovering junkie who works with a 12-step program.

As mentioned, the original series opening was performed by the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s website gives their background details.

Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s, the Blind Boys flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel. In the early 1960s, the band sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and were a part of the........

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