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ClassicsOnline Home » IVES, Burl: Troubador (1941-1950)
BURL IVES Troubador
Original Recordings 1941-1950
He was America’s avuncular folk balladeer. For more than a half-century, Burl
Ives’ rotund, goateed figure and honey-voiced tenor re-taught America its
oldest and most valuable musical resource: its folk songs. Burl Ives learned folk music the way it
should be learned: from family members and from the American people themselves. In the process, he helped found the
explosive folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s, only to have his disciples
turn their backs on him when he dared testify for the dreaded House Un-American
Activities Committee at the risk of destroying his career.
Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born to tenant farmers on 14 June
1909 in Huntington Township, located in Jasper County in southern
Illinois. Like most other
Americans, Ives learned his first folk songs through oral tradition, mostly
from his grandmother, Kate White.
At family get-togethers, Ives played his banjo and learned the ancient
songs that his English/Irish ancestors had brought with them when they
immigrated to America in the 1600s.
Ives’ style was formed, in part, by Bradley Kincaid, the
sweet-singing folk minstrel of WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance. In 1929, Ives auditioned for Gennett
Records in Richmond, Indiana, but his test record was rejected. He enrolled in a teachers’ college, but
was bored with his studies and quit after his first year. He wanted to see America and seek out
more songs of the people, and so in 1929, Burl Ives left home to become, in his
words, “a wayfaring minstrel.”
For the next two years, he hoboed around the country, seeing
America from the inside out. In
those years, the oral tradition was still strong and the country was rife with
ancient and beau-tiful songs, just waiting for an eager young song collector
like Ives to gather them up. By
the time he returned home, Ives had collected a virtual treasure trove. In his 1948 autobiography, Ives
recalled, “I realized I possessed a tremendous repertoire. I had cowboy songs, railroad songs,
love songs, work songs; I knew hundreds.”
Ives tried finding work as a balladeer, but found
resentment, not towards his velvety voice, but towards the songs he sang, which
were deemed pedestrian and even vulgar.
In Terre Haute, Indiana, he sang on the radio for $10 a week, billing
himself as “The Blond Tenor with his Guitar”, and even worked in a jazz
orchestra to save up money to go to New York, where he thought he could get
better paying jobs and learn the acting trade.
In 1933, Ives arrived in New York and hired a voice teacher
named Ella Töedt. When she heard him sing, she was enraptured, and told him
that “the minstrels of old must have sung that way.” At Töedt’s urging, Ives registered at New York University,
and learned harmony and music theory, using his knowledge to smooth out the
rough edges of his folk songs.
Although this was anathema to the purist folk community, Ives felt that
by doing so, the songs would be more likely to be preserved. “Some I discarded, some I changed,”
Ives wrote in his autobiography.
“I would change words when I knew I had better ones. I would change the tune when I thought
it would help the song. Often I
changed a whole story or wrote new verses. At night, their melodies would keep me awake until I rose to
work on them again. I had to share
them, sing them for people.”
In 1938, folklorist Alan Lomax interviewed and recorded Ives
for the Library of Congress in Washington. Ives also met actor/activist Will Geer, who landed him an
audition in a show Geer was appearing in called Sing Out the News, produced by
Max Gordon. It was the beginning of a promising secondary career as an actor.
In 1940, Burl Ives got his first big break when he landed
his own network radio programme at CBS.
With the media savvy Alan Lomax’s help, Ives crafted a personality to
make the show more marketable, nicknaming himself “The Wayfaring Stranger”,
after the religious ballad that he felt represented, in Lomax’s words, “the poor,
the dispossessed, the illiterate, and the socially unacceptable.” Ives’ idea was “to sing of the sorrow
and bravery and love that is among all people”; the song “Poor Wayfaring
Stranger” summed up his travails during the Depression:
just a poor wayfaring stranger,
through this world of woe;
there’s no sickness, toil nor danger,
that bright world to which I go.
Ives’ passion for folk songs rang true and touched the hearts
of rough-edged New Yorkers. In 1941, after the show became a hit, CBS hustled
Ives into their Columbia recording studios to cut an album of 78s, which would
be released on Columbia’s subsidiary label, Okeh. The twelve songs issued on
the album included some of the oldest and most cherished folk songs he had
learned, including On Top of Old Smoky, Darlin’ Cory, and The Riddle Song.
In 1942, Ives enlisted in the Army, but when he returned, he
made records for Asch and Decca, and was a smash hit in the musical play, Sing
Out, Sweet Land, starring Alfred Drake.
On the Fourth of July, 1949, Ives made a second album of
folk songs for Columbia, entitled The Return of the Wayfaring Stranger, which
featured more traditional ballads, including Lord Randall and On Springfield
Mountain, which counted as some of the oldest brought over to America centuries
On Ives’ next two sessions for Columbia, in October 1949 and
February 1950, he was joined by a talented CBS staff musician, guitarist Tony
Mottola, who livened up Ives’ ballads with innovative and jazzy accompaniments
that included non-folk instruments such as clarinet and flute. Ives’ arrangements on these numbers
were as tasteful and lively as they were sophisticated, bringing the plaintive
folk ditties to a new level and a new audience (listen, for example, to the
sprightly version of the modal murder ballad, Pretty Polly).
In 1952, Burl Ives was faced with the most difficult
decision of his life when he was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Unlike other folk singers, like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Burl
Ives’ musical activities were never politically motivated. But he faced a choice: either cooperate
and resume his career, or refuse and be blacklisted. He chose the former; in the process, implicating his old
friends Will Geer and Pete Seeger.
From that point on, Ives was persona non grata to the folk music
community. Even when the folk revival emerged, and groups such as the Kingston
Trio began doing versions of songs they had learned from Burl Ives’ records,
Ives was reviled as a traitor by the folk community (in later years, Ives would
make peace with both Geer and Seeger).
Ives’ acting career flourished; he won an Oscar for his role
in The Big Country, and had other memorable roles in East of Eden and Cat on a
Hot Tin Roof. On television, Ives
starred in O.K.Crackerby and The Bold Ones. His fading singing career took on a new life when he went to
Nashville and had a string of pop/country hits, beginning with “A Little Bitty
Tear” in 1962. A highlight of his later life was his work as the voice of the
snowman/narrator in television’s animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that
has since become a holiday classic. Burl Ives retired to Anacortes, Washington,
where he died of cancer on 14 April 1995 at the age of 85.
Burl Ives’ love for the traditional folk songs of the
American people is evident in these vintage recordings. Despite his success as an actor,
author, and star of Broadway, film, and television, Ives will be best
remembered as the 20th century’s most famous troubadour.
– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and
award-winning author of four books on American music. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)
Burl Ives’ quotes are from his autobiography, Wayfaring
Stranger (Whittlesey House, NY: 1948)
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IVES, Burl: Troubador (1941-1950)