“Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat…”

A reader this week reminded me of something that I may have known, but had forgotten — that long before he was the funniest deadpan comic actor in America, Leslie Nielsen was … “The Swamp Fox” on TV. She wrote:

I occasionally post on your blog as Abba.  Would you consider posting this clip from YouTube showing Leslie Nielsen, who died this week, as South Carolina’s Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in Disney’s series from the early 1960s – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vvQJ7ZDg1Y.  Here’s a longer version – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVGN1pDzYAY&feature=related.  Leslie Nielsen never looked so good!  This clip has the catchy theme song that I remember so well from my childhood.  We used to play the Swamp Fox on the playground at school, and many of the boys in my class had tri-cornered hats with fox tails attached.  Hear the song once, and you’ll be humming it all day long!  A fitting tribute to Leslie Nielsen from our corner of the world, I think.

I loved that show, which ran from October 23, 1959 (right after my 6th birthday) to January 15, 1961 — hardly more than a year.

Like the far, far more successful “Davy Crockett” series and generally forgotten “Gray Ghost,” these shows inspired me and other very young kids to run out and play at being actual figures from history. (Anyone remember that goofy, overly elaborate way Col. Mosby saluted? I thought it was cool, and used to go around imitating it. Wouldn’t you like to see video of that?)

Actually, to take that a bit farther… to this day, whenever I hear the words “Tory” and “Patriot,” I think of first hearing them used on “The Swamp Fox.” So while my understanding of the term was to grow and expand later, I actually had a minimal working knowledge of what a “Tory” was at the age of 6. If I ran into a 6-year-old who used a term like that today, I’d be shocked. But it was common currency among fans of “The Swamp Fox.”

I can also remember a conversation I had with my uncle about “The Gray Ghost.” I was confused about the whole blue-vs.-gray thing (especially since I was watching it in black-and-white), and I asked him during one show, “Are those the good guys or the bad guys?” My uncle, who was only a kid himself (six years older than I) could have given me a simplistic answer, but instead, he said, “Well, they’re both Americans…” and went on to suggest that a case could be made for both being good guys. That sort of rocked my world. There was no such ambiguity on the Westerns I watched. This was my introduction to the concept that in war, in politics, in life, things can be complicated, that there are many shades of gray. Perhaps the track that set mind on has something to do with why I don’t buy into the whole Democrat-vs.-Republican, left-vs.-right dichotomy that drives our politics. After all, they’re all Americans. And in the wider world, they’re all humans. Even the Nazis. (Of course, this doesn’t keep me from understanding that when humans’ actions go beyond the pale — as with Nazis, or terrorists — they must be opposed, with force if necessary.)

Also, while at first I didn’t think I remembered the “Swamp Fox” theme song, as I listened to it repeated over and over on that clip above, I had a dim memory of being struck by the odd syntax of that second line, “no one knows where the Swamp Fox at” — I didn’t know WHY it sounded odd (I was just learning to read, and hadn’t gotten to grammar yet), it just did.

In other words, these shows — which presented very simplistic, often inaccurate glimpses of history — not only helped feed a lifelong interest in history, but helped foster the ability to think.

So… TV doesn’t actually have to be junk, although it’s often hard to remember that these days.

9 thoughts on ““Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat…”

  1. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Actually, most critics, comparing such shows with the best on TV today (In Treatment, The Wire, Mad Men, etc.) would say we have vastly improved. You were but a wee one then…

    I was too young to enjoy those shows, but do remember playing Daniel Boone in this big clay ravine a couple of blocks away from my house, called “The Ditches” although there was only one ditch. At least it looked like a ravine to me. Now when I go back, I can barely even see it–erosion or the distortion of growing up?

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  2. Brad

    Oh, I would say the same — about the BEST on television. The Sopranos. Band of Brothers. Of course, an HBO series is a different animal, a different art form, from traditional, mass-market network television.

    The acting, the production values in those days were atrocious. But I was a kid; I didn’t care.

    I guess what I’m saying has nothing to do with esthetics. I’m lauding the fact that they instilled in me a love of history. What’s a kid supposed to watch now to get that. Rome? The Tudors? I don’t think so. Those are sexploitation tarted up as history. Band of Brothers and The Pacific are wonderful, but too intense and dark (especially the Pacific) for kids.

    These stories were told on a child’s level. And again, they didn’t even try to be realistic. But they engaged interest in the SUBJECT.

    After I wrote this, I was thinking about all the other shows in my early childhood that were built around heroic action figures from American (and English) history — Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Robin Hood. (When I lived in that house across Heyward Street from the Shop Tart’s house in 1957, “Wild Bill Hickok” was my very favorite).

    Maybe this explains why I have more of an affinity for the “Great Men” theory of history than I do for social history…

    Then there were all those books I read: About Robin Hood, of course, John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur (hey, my Dad was in the Navy), Robert E. Lee, books from the “We Were There” series, and all sorts of historical youth novels that I got through the Weekly Reader Book Club (Fear in the Forest, The Bells of Freedom, to name two whose names I recall off the top of my head). Today, kids read “Twilight.” I read historical fiction. I think it helped me understand reality better.

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  3. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I watched, and still watch, all those “Crowns and Gowns” Masterpiece Theatre series (on Netflix now). I not only know all about the Six Wives of Henry the Eighth, but I can tell you who the actresses were who played them in the early seventies series.

    I guess kids nowadays have a huge advantage in Netflix. I used to hope they’d show old movies on Saturdays back when there were only two and the three commercial stations in Augusta–another reason I despise sports, come to think of it. During the rare lulls in sporting broadcasts, they’d sometimes show an old movie. Of course, now, there are a ton of cable channels, and a kid can own a library of DVDs and downloads, or just watch them on Netflix. Think of all the excellent films on historical topics or set in olden days– The Last of the Mohicans, Lonesome Dove (I only read the book, but since they showed it on broadcast TV I assume it was cleaned up), one of the better Robin Hood versions….

    I’m watching the Foyle’s War series now–set in Hastings on the southern coast of England during WW II, it puts a murder mystery in the rich historical context of the homefront where an invasion was very likely.

    I will say that historical fiction can vary widely in its truthiness.

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  4. Burl Burlingame

    Wow, you had TV? I missed all that. We were assigned to Formosa and TV was science fiction. We had books, the radio with reruns of ’30s adventures and Saturday matinees with Commando Cody and Flash Gordon serials at the base theater. It was like growing up in 1939 instead of 1959.
    I’m impressed that the show was in color and had black actors.
    I DID see “Johnny Tremaine” at the theater.

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  5. Brad

    Burl, that’s the way I was those two-and-a-half years in Ecuador. The TV (one channel about six hours a day, with dubbed old American fare) was so unappealing we left ours in storage. I had a wonderful time outdoors without TV. And just down the street was the Variedades theater — one big room, sticky concrete floor, wooden benches for seats, the concession stand at the back of the room, selling Cokes and banana chips fried on the spot. It cost the equivalent of 2 cents to get in, and the Cokes cost about the same. We watched things like Italian Hercules movies, and The Three Musketeers in French — with Spanish subtitles, so we could follow. (The English-language American flicks showed in the nicer theaters downtown.) Best entertainment deal I’ve ever run across.

    But when I came back to the States, I DEVOURED American popular culture. I was starved for it, and it was like firing up a nuclear reactor in the pleasure centers of my brain. I not only memorized all three network TV schedules, but everything else that was only the local stations, 24 hours a day — not just prime time.

    I arrived home at the end of April, and all through the summer my excitement built as I saw the promos for the new shows coming in the fall. When the 1965-66 season finally arrived, it felt like a huge event in my life.

    I particularly remember the night of Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1965. That night I watched three shows debut on our black-and-white set in my bedroom in our apartment in an old converted barracks in New Orleans: “Lost in Space” and “Green Acres” on CBS, and “I Spy” on NBC. Not to mention new episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” to cleanse the palate between premiers.

    And yes, I checked Wikipedia for the exact date and the full Wednesday night schedule. But I remembered clearly, without checking anything, that it was on one Wednesday night in 1965 that I saw “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I Spy” for the first time.

    Then, on Friday, there was “The Wild Wild West,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

    I was 11, and the world was a startlingly wonderful place. Actually, both worlds — the real one, and the one on TV.

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  6. Steve Gordy

    God, what memories that brings back! I was just trying to recall (my memories go back to about ’55 when we got our first TV) some of the old series – “The Gray Ghost” was one I remember, also “Yancy Derringer,” set in 19th-century New Orleans. While no one pretends these were serious attempts to look at history, at least they didn’t dress up World War II as comedy; compare them to “McHale’s Navy” or “Hogan’s Heroes.” My dad took particular offense at the latter, since he was a WWII POW in Germany.

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  7. Ralph Hightower

    I lived seven months in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Marion is a bedroom community of Cedar Rapids, much like Irmo is a bedroom community of Columbia.

    I was surprised when I shopped in a Marion, IA store to see “Swamp Fox” t-shirts on sale. It turns out that Marion, IA is dedicated to Francis Marion and that they have an annual Swamp Fox Festival.

    I wish that I had bought one of the t-shirts. But I have a classic: A Bonnie Campbell for Governor t-shirt; 1994 was the last term for Carroll.

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  8. bud

    I couldn’t sleep the night before
    ‘Lost in Space’ debuted. I didn’t remember the exact date but I knew it was in 1965. Still love the show even if it’s a bit campy.

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  9. Scott Johnson

    Oh, I had a Disney album as a kid that had the “Swamp Fox” song on it….it used to tickle me to no end that a local character was the subject of a Disney song. Is the statue of Francis Marion still standing in Marion, SC? It was a landmark of sorts when I was a kid for beach trips. I, too, am a native son of Bennettsville.

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