BURL IVES Troubador
Original Recordings 1941-1950
He was America's avuncular folk balladeer. For more than a half-century, BurlIves' rotund, goateed figure and honey-voiced tenor re-taught America itsoldest and most valuable musical resource: its folk songs. Burl Ives learned folk music the way itshould be learned: from family members and from the American people themselves. In the process, he helped found theexplosive folk music revival of the 1950s and '60s, only to have his disciplesturn their backs on him when he dared testify for the dreaded House Un-AmericanActivities Committee at the risk of destroying his career.
Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born to tenant farmers on 14 June1909 in Huntington Township, located in Jasper County in southernIllinois. Like most otherAmericans, Ives learned his first folk songs through oral tradition, mostlyfrom his grandmother, Kate White. At family get-togethers, Ives played his banjo and learned the ancientsongs that his English/Irish ancestors had brought with them when theyimmigrated to America in the 1600s.
Ives' style was formed, in part, by Bradley Kincaid, thesweet-singing folk minstrel of WLS Chicago's National Barn Dance. In 1929, Ives auditioned for GennettRecords in Richmond, Indiana, but his test record was rejected. He enrolled in a teachers' college, butwas bored with his studies and quit after his first year. He wanted to see America and seek outmore songs of the people, and so in 1929, Burl Ives left home to become, in hiswords, \a wayfaring minstrel."
For the next two years, he hoboed around the country, seeingAmerica from the inside out. Inthose years, the oral tradition was still strong and the country was rife withancient and beau-tiful songs, just waiting for an eager young song collectorlike Ives to gather them up. Bythe time he returned home, Ives had collected a virtual treasure trove. In his 1948 autobiography, Ivesrecalled, "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 foundresentment, not towards his velvety voice, but towards the songs he sang, whichwere deemed pedestrian and even vulgar. In Terre Haute, Indiana, he sang on the radio for $10 a week, billinghimself as "The Blond Tenor with his Guitar", and even worked in a jazzorchestra to save up money to go to New York, where he thought he could getbetter paying jobs and learn the acting trade.
In 1933, Ives arrived in New York and hired a voice teachernamed Ella Toedt. When she heard him sing, she was enraptured, and told himthat "the minstrels of old must have sung that way." At Toedt's urging, Ives registered at New York University,and learned harmony and music theory, using his knowledge to smooth out therough edges of his folk songs. Although this was anathema to the purist folk community, Ives felt thatby 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 thoughtit would help the song. Often Ichanged a whole story or wrote new verses. At night, their melodies would keep me awake until I rose towork on them again. I had to sharethem, sing them for people."
In 1938, folklorist Alan Lomax interviewed and recorded Ivesfor the Library of Congress in Washington. Ives also met actor/activist Will Geer, who landed him anaudition in a show Geer was appearing in called Sing Out the News, produced byMax Gordon. It was the beginning of a promising secondary career as an actor.
In 1940, Burl Ives got his first big break when he landedhis own network radio programme at CBS. With the media savvy Alan Lomax's help, Ives crafted a personality tomake 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 sorrowand bravery and love that is among all people"; the song "Poor WayfaringStranger" summed up his travails during the Depression:
I'mjust a poor wayfaring stranger,
A-travelingthrough this world of woe;
Butthere's no sickness, toil nor danger,
Inthat bright world to which I go.
Ives' passion for folk songs rang true and touched the heartsof rough-edged New Yorkers. In 1941, after the show became a hit, CBS hustledIves into their Columbia recording studios to cut an album of 78s, which wouldbe released on Columbia's subsidiary label, Okeh. The twelve songs issued onthe album included some of the oldest and most cherished folk songs he hadlearned, including On Top of Old Smoky, Darlin' Cory, and The Riddle Song.
In 1942, Ives enlisted in the Army, but when he returned, hemade records for Asch and Decca, and was a smash hit in the musical play, SingOut, Sweet Land, starring Alfred Drake.
On the Fourth of July, 1949, Ives made a second album offolk songs for Columbia, entitled The Return of the Wayfaring Stranger, whichfeatured more traditional ballads, including Lord Randall and On SpringfieldMountain, which counted as some of the oldest brought over to America centuriesbefore.
On Ives' next two sessions for Columbia, in October 1949 andFebruary 1950, he was joined by a talented CBS staff musician, guitarist TonyMottola, who livened up Ives' ballads with innovative and jazzy accompanimentsthat included non-folk instruments such as clarinet and flute. Ives' arrangements on these numberswere as tasteful and lively as they were sophisticated, bringing the plaintivefolk ditties to a new level and a new audience (listen, for example, to thesprightly version of the modal murder ballad, Pretty Polly).
In 1952, Burl Ives was faced with the most difficultdecision of his life when he was subpoenaed to testify in front of the HouseUn-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Unlike other folk singers, like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, BurlIves' musical activities were never politically motivated. But he faced a choice: either cooperateand resume his career, or refuse and be blacklisted. He chose the former; in the process, implicating his oldfriends Will Geer and Pete Seeger. From that point on, Ives was persona non grata to the folk musiccommunity. Even when the folk revival emerged, and groups such as the KingstonTrio 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 wouldmake peace with both Geer and Seeger).
Ives' acting career flourished; he won an Oscar for his rolein The Big Country, and had other memorable roles in East of Eden and Cat on aHot Tin Roof. On television, Ivesstarred in O.K.Crackerby and The Bold Ones. His fading singing career took on a new life when he went toNashville and had a string of pop/country hits, beginning with "A Little BittyTear"