Wednesday, December 13, 2017


MERRY CHRISTMAS!  Yes, I said Merry CHRISTmas! Celebrating was pretty simple when I was a kid.  Christmas was Jesus' birthday so we all got gifts keeping in mind THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL.  Now everyone has a different idea.  Some Bible scholars think Jesus was born in the spring.  Some use a whole long trail of Biblical events and Jewish feasts to prove the birth of Jesus was actually in September during Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) and it's pagan anyway so we shouldn't celebrate at all.  Just last week I read something written by another Bible scholar who used the exact same argument to prove that our Christmas customs are not as pagan as first thought and the date of December 25 is actually pretty close to Jesus' real birthday.  No matter which side of the argument you fall on, (I'm still on HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS, the colored lights are pretty, and I do like presents!) it is almost a surety that sometime during the holiday season you sit in front of your TV long enough to watch the story about a certain little misfit reindeer as told by Sam the Snowman. Sam, though an animated children's character, was voiced by an already famous Academy Award winning actor/singer.

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in Hunt City Township in Jasper County, Illinois on June 14, 1909.  His father Frank was a tenant farmer and later a contractor for the county.  His mother Dellie loved singing so her six children were surrounded by music at an early age.  Burl, the youngest, started his professional career at age four when his uncle overheard him in the garden singing with his mother.  He was invited by his uncle to sing at the Old Soldier's Reunion in Hunt City.  He delivered a rendition of the old folk song BARBARA ALLEN that greatly impressed his uncle and the audience.  From then on he was asked to perform at various places around the area.  He was paid twenty-five cents per performance and used the money to help his family.  He soon learned to accompany himself on guitar and banjo.  

As a kid he joined the Lone Scouts of America, a group that tried to teach self-reliance and respect through studying the American Indian tradition.  In 1924, the group was incorporated into the Boy Scouts of America.  Ives continued to support the Boy Scouts throughout his life.  

Burl went to high school in Hunt City where he played on the football team.  He had an idea of becoming a football coach so he enrolled in Illinois State Teacher's  College where he also played football.  But life takes abrupt turns sometimes.  One day in his junior year, he was sitting in class listening to what must have been a very boring lecture on Beowulf.  It struck him that he was learning absolutely nothing of value.  He walked out of class slamming the door so hard the glass shattered.  Sixty years later the school named a building after him.

He traveled the country in search of jobs playing music wherever he could.  This earned him the nickname of "The Wayfaring Stranger"  which he used for his shows, and later albums and autobiographies.  He often supported himself by working on riverboats and doing odd jobs.  He was jailed in Mona, Utah for vagrancy and singing a song called FOGGY DEW which the authorities considered too bawdy.  His travels took him to Indiana where, in 1931, he began performing on WBOW radio in Terre Haute.  He enrolled in Indiana Teacher's College to finish his education.  He also took voice lessons from Madame Clara Lyon in Terre Haute.

He went to New York in 1937 where he attended the Juilliard School and New York University School of music.  He sang in Greenwich Village clubs and acted in small stock theater companies while continuing his voice and acting lessons.  In 1938, he landed a small role in the Broadway show THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE.  He appeared on the CBS radio broadcast FORECAST which led to getting his own radio show n 1940.  He called the show THE WAYFARING STRANGER because of his old nickname.  He made popular many of the old folk songs like LAVENDER BLUE, FOGGY, FOGGY DEW, BLUE TAIL FLY, and BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN.  He performed on Broadway again in HEAVENLY EXPRESS and at the prestigious club VILLAGE VANGUARD in Greenwich Village.  During this time, he became friends with Eddie Albert.  The two later roomed together after going to Hollywood.


Ives was associated with the Almanac Singers a folk singing group that at various times also included Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Millard Lampell, and Pete Seeger.  They were active in the American Peace Mobilization an antiwar group opposing Franklin Roosevelt's pro-allied stance and America's entry into World War II.  Their songs included GET OUT AND STAY OUT OF WAR and FRANKLIN, OH FRANKLIN.  When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, that same group reorganized into the American People's Mobilization changing their stance in favor of the US entering the war.  Songs recorded during that time included DEAR MR. PRESIDENT and RUEBEN JAMES after the name of a US destroyer sunk by the Germans though at that time the US had not entered the war.

He was drafted into the army in early 1942 and sent to Camp Dix and then on to Camp Upton.  There he joined the cast of Irving Berlin's THIS IS THE ARMY a musical aimed at boosting troop morale.  He was promoted to the rank of corporal but when the show went to Hollywood, he was transferred to the Army Air Force.  He made some recordings for the United States Office of War Information and hosted a radio show called G. I. JIVE which played to the troops overseas.  He was discharged in September of 1943 for medical reasons.

After returning to civilian life, he continued his singing and acting career.  He hosted a CBS radio show for about a year before returning to Broadway.  He was given a Donaldson Award for his performance in SING OUT SWEET LAND a Broadway folk music revue.  He made some recordings including MULE TRAIN and GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY.  In 1945, he married  screenwriter Helen Peck Ehrich, from whom he was later divorced.  They adopted a son named Alexander.

Burl Ives was noted for his liberal political views.  He was a member of Hollywood Fights back, a movement by entertainers to protest the actions of the House Unamerican Activities Committee which had been set up in the late 1940s to identify communists in the entertainment industry.  He was noted as being a member of a left wing group and blacklisted by the Government.  In 1952, he went before the committee and convinced them he was not a communist.  But a lot of his folk singing friends accused him of naming names of others who did have communist ties.  Pete Seeger in particular was angry that he had sold out his friends and political beliefs to save his own career.  They didn't speak to each other until forty-one years later when they sang BLUE TAIL FLY together on stage at a benefit concert in New York City.

He made his screen debut in the film adaptation of the Will James horse story SMOKY playing the character named Willie.  This was followed by appearances in GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING, STATION WEST, and SO DEAR TO MY HEART a Walt Disney family film.  SO DEAR TO MY HEART was his breakthrough film role and the song LAVENDER BLUE was his first big hit song.  His popularity as a singer grew as well due to the rising attention to folk songs after WWII.  He starred with Audie Murphy in HIGH SIERRA and appeared on Broadway in shows such as SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, SHOW BOAT, AND PAINT YOUR WAGON.  He put together four books during that time and recorded more than 120 songs for a six album collection called HISTORICAL AMERICA IN SONG released by Encyclopedia Britannica.  He recorded hits with songs like THE COWBOY'S LAMENT, HUSH LITTLE BABY, JOHN HENRY, NOAH FOUND GRACE IN THE EYES OF THE LORD, ON TOP OF OLD SMOKY, and SWEET BETSY FROM PIKE.



In 1955, he played Big Daddy in  Tennessee Williams' play CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF which was arguably his most famous role.  His film career picked up considerably during the next few years.  He had a supporting role in EAST OF EDEN and a minor part in THE POWER AND THE PRICE.  He made an uncredited appearance as himself in  A FACE IN THE CROWD.  The pinnacle of his film career came in 1958 when he repeated his role of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks' screen version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.  His next role was in THE BIG COUNTRY, a story about a man who is forced to kill his own son.  His performance was so impressive he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for that role.  He followed that by starring in DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, and DAY OF THE OUTLAW.

During the late fifties and early sixties, he did some comedies, children's movies and recordings, and guest starred on several TV shows.  One of my personal favorite guest appearances  was on an episode of DANIEL BOONE.  He played a wandering shaman named Prater Beasley who traveled around with a 3,000 year old invisible bear named Mr. Dobbs.  This bear was supposed to have been acquainted with Old Testament Biblical characters and possessed the wisdom of the ages.  Pretty insane sounding but he did solve whatever problem the people of Boonesborough were facing at the moment.

Now back to Christmas! In 1964 Burl Ives was picked to be the voice of Sam the Snowman to narrate the animated movie RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER.  Two of his own songs HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS and  SILVER AND GOLD were featured in the film.  RUDOLPH became an instant beloved Christmas classic which still delights children and adults 53 years later!  

He continued to work in TV and movie roles throughout the seventies.  He starred in two TV series OK CRACKERBY which was a story about the richest man in the world and THE BOLD ONES:THE LAWYERS. He appeared in PINOCCHIO and ROOTS among other shows.   With the legendary Owen Bradley as his producer, he recorded some country hits such as  A LITTLE BITTY TEAR, FUNNY WAY OF LAUGHING, AND CALL ME MISTER IN-BETWEEN.  He recorded one last major album PAYIN' MY DUES AGAIN before devoting himself to children's and religious music.  He was the voice of Sam the Eagle when the AMERICA SINGS attraction was added to Tomorrowland in Disneyland.  He was in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's campaign THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND......KEEP IT CLEAN with their fictional spokesperson Johnny Horizon.

He and Helen divorced in 1971 and she received custody of their adopted son.  He married Dorothy Koster Paul in London two months later.  She brought him three step-children.   Upon reaching the age of 70 in 1979,  he retired with his new family to Washington State.  

He didn't use the term "retirement" to totally stop working.  He continued in TV commercials as the spokesperson for Luzianne tea.  He appeared a science-fiction movie named EARTHBOUND and also in WHITE DOG a racial drama.   He did many benefits for Indian reservations, peace academies, environmental groups, arts foundations, children's hospitals, and the Boy Scouts.  In 1984, he provided narration for the Star Wars telemovie CARAVAN OF COURAGE: AN EWOK ADVENTURE.  The characters spoke only Ewokese so the narration had to explain the plot in the opening scenes and continue throughout the drama about a brother and sister who had to rescue their parents from a giant monster.   His last movie was TWO MOON JUNCTION, an erotic thriller in 1988.  His last recording was THE MAGIC BALLADEER in 1993.

Burl Ives received many honors and awards for his varied career.  Among them were his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit, a laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, and several Grammy Awards.  He was the inspiration for the comic book drawings of Green Lantern's archenemy, the evil Hector Hammond.  He was associated with the Boy Scouts of America throughout his life. He often performed at their quadrennial Boy Scout Jamboree  including the one in 1981 where he appeared with the Oak Ridge Boys.  The Boy Scouts highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award, was given to Ives and the certificate for that honor is in the Scouting Museum in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

He was most proud of being born into a family of Masons.  He became a member of the George M. Todd Chapter of DeMolay in Charlestown, Illinois in 1927 and remained involved from then on.  He attained the level of 33rd Degree Mason.  He received the DeMolay Legion of Honor in 1986 and was inducted into the DeMolay Hall of Fame on June 24, 1994.

He had always been a heavy smoker and was often photographed with his pipe.  He was diagnosed with mouth cancer in the summer of 1994.  After several unsuccessful surgeries,  he decided against further treatment.  He passed away at his home in Anacortes, Washington on April 14, 1995 at the age of 85 and was buried in the Mound Cemetery in Hunt City Township, Illinois.  

His music will never go away.  I heard him singing one of his Christmas songs in the background of one of the shows I was watching on TV last night.  Burl Ives and his unique voice  followed that outcast reindeer and they both went "right down in history".




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