Originally published December 9, 2020.
If you haven’t seen The Wire, literally stop reading this and go watch it. It has nothing, really, to do with the theme song, per se, but it’s just a great show. It’s incredible. Even Season 5, which is the worst season by a long measure, is great. There’s even a joke in Family Guy about how obsessed fans are with The Wire (and to a greater extent, Breaking Bad). But regardless of the comically aggressive nature of The Wire fans, the theme song is an important component to the show.
If you haven’t seen the show, here is the most succinct summary I can give: The Wire follows various drug dealers and political subdivisions of Baltimore, Maryland, and shows how corruption, bureaucracy, and lack of government accountability affect a wide array of people. The primary drug dealers include gangs from the East Side and West Side of Baltimore’s roughest areas as they struggle for control over territory and product. The primary political subdivisions include the Baltimore Police Department and its different divisions, as well as the mayor’s office and city council. Beginning with Season 4, there is also significant focus on the school system. Season 5 includes focus on the media and its role in investigating and reporting on issues and influencing consumers.
The theme song is Tom Waits’s very Tom Waitsy song “Way Down in the Hole.” The lyrics themselves are moralistic and religious and when performed as such sound like a gospel tune. Each of the five seasons of The Wire had a different version of the song as it’s opening theme. While they are all solid, some are more solid than others, and without any further discussion, here they are ranked from worst to best.
5. Season 5 (Steve Earle)
Steve Earle is a country-rock artist who has attained his own fame through dive bar classics like “Copperhead Road” and shared the spotlight with outlaw country pioneers like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Steve Earle also played recovering drug addict Walon in the series. He also happens to be a real life recovering drug addict.
Steve Earle’s twangy version of Way Down in the Hole is good, but it is the worst of the five versions the show had on its run, which is also a pretty good way to describe the entire fifth season. Either way, it is just a little too optimistic for the show. Still great, through.
4. Season 3, (The Neville Brothers)
Season 3 largely focuses on a war between rogue up-and-coming drug dealer Marlo Stanfield and established-but-fresh-out-of-jail-and-behind-the-times drug dealer Avon Barksdale. Add to that other drug dealers forming a cooperative, betrayals from previous seasons coming to light, and the ugliest side of politicking at the city level and you have what is probably the most violent season of the show. With that in mind, the smooth stylings of Aaron Neville don’t quite set the mood. Aaron Neville and his brothers are some smooth-voiced R&B legends from New Orleans. Aaron himself is perhaps most known for his very inimitable vocals on his duet with Linda Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much.” The smooth voice and funky music are good listening, but just don’t fit with the season as a whole.
3. Season 4 (DoMaJe)
Season 4 of The Wire focuses on normal police stuff but also has huge subplots concentrating on the Baltimore school system and what it is like growing up as a child in the ghetto where drug dealing is the primary way to make a living. The theme song is sung by a group called DoMaJe, which according to the Internet was a group of Baltimore teenagers. Unfortunately there isn’t much information on DoMaJe out there. This song is the perfect mix of vocals and music that really conveys the grittiness of the show. My issue is that it would be better suited for a different season. Swapping this with the Neville Brothers’ version in Season 3 would be better, but no one asked me, so whatever.
2. Season 2 (Tom Waits)
The OG version is featured in Season 2, which may not have the same violence and grittiness of Season 1, but does dig down into more emotional levels. The season also features corrupt labor unions, full frontal male nudity, and an angry Pablo Schreiber.
I happen to love Tom Waits. Someone once described his voice as smooth, barrel-aged bourbon that was left on a highway and run over by a semi truck. I don’t even really know what that means, but I agree. Either way, the song is perfect for The Wire. It’s not too refined and contains a hint of violence. Fitting.
1. Season 1 (Blind Boys of Alabama)
The Blind Boys of Alabama are a fascinating group. They formed in 1939 and are still going. Naturally, they have a revolving lineup, but still. In college a friend showed me album they recorded with Ben Harper called Live at the Apollo, and I have been a fan ever since. They are a genuine gospel group and their music ranges from a cappella to the funkified stuff you can hear in “Way Down in the Hole.” The funk combined with the smoothest voice (in my opinion) of any of The Wire performances is perfect. This and Tom Waits’s version are the only ones I listen to in my free time. When I hear it, I get flooded with memories of watching the show for the first time and being blown away by awesomeness. Maybe it’s nostalgic. Maybe it’s actually that amazing. I don’t care. I love it. Absolutely love it.