About this Recording
8.120728 - IVES, Burl: Troubador (1941-1950)

BURL IVES Troubador

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:


            I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,

            A-traveling through this world of woe;

            But there’s no sickness, toil nor danger,

            In 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 before.


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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