Ives, Burl Icle Ivanhoe

views updated

Ives, Burl Icle Ivanhoe

(b. 14 June 1909 in Hunt, Illinois; d 14 April 1995 in Anacortes, Washington), popular folksinger of the 1950s and 1960s and Academy Award—winning actor.

Ives was the youngest of six children of Frank Ives and Cordella White, tenant farmers in Illinois. Although they could trace their roots to Revolutionary America, the family lived on a very modest income during Ives’s earliest years. In spite of their poverty, Ives had a childhood that was rich in music, and he learned hundreds of folk songs from his pipe-smoking, tobacco-chewing grandmother Kate White. Ives could not remember a time when he was not singing, and he was only four years old when he first sang for money: he received a quarter for singing “Barbara Allen” at a veterans’ picnic.

By the time he was in high school, his family had become more financially secure with the purchase of a construction business in Newton, Illinois. Ives played fullback on the Newton High School football squad. After graduating in 1927 he went on to Eastern Illinois State Teachers College in Charleston. He hoped to become a football coach, but he was indifferent about his studies and left college in his third year to become an itinerant singer, using his warm tenor voice with a trace of vibrato. His travels took him to forty-six states as well as Canada and Mexico, performing under the name “Burl Ives, the Vagabond Lover.” When he could not support himself by singing and playing the banjo, he did odd jobs. Along the way he added many new songs to his repertoire as he learned tunes from cowboys, lumberjacks, and hoboes.

Eventually Ives settled in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he gave college another try at the Indiana State Teachers College. He also worked at odd jobs, lined up a radio program, and played semiprofessional football. His singing instructor, Clara Bloomfield Lyon, convinced him to bypass college and go to New York City to break into show business.

In 1937 Ives moved into a $5-a-week apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At first booking agents considered his music too rustic, so he endured some lean times before making his Broadway debut in 1938 in the musical comedy The Boys from Syracuse. Rodgers and Hart placed him in the road company of I Married an Angel (1938). His Broadway exposure led to a four-month engagement at the Village Vanguard (1940) and a national radio show called The Wayfarin’ Stranger on CBS. Ives was known for his bearish looks—he weighed nearly 300 pounds and stood six feet, three inches tall. In contrast, he had a distinctively honey-sweet singing voice that made him a favorite with generations of children as he defined songs such as “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Foggy, Foggy Dew,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

In 1942 Ives was drafted into military service and served in Irving Berlin’s production This Is the Army in New York. The following year he received a medical discharge, although he continued to entertain the troops. He also produced and starred in the Broadway revue Sing Out, Sweet Land, which won him a Donaldson Award as best supporting actor in the 1944–1945 season. One of the songs he included was “The Blue Tail Fly,” which became his signature tune over the years.

Ives traveled to Hollywood and made his film debut in 1945 in an adaptation of the Will James novel Smoky. Later that year he performed his first major New York concert at Town Hall. On 6 December 1945 Ives married Helen Payne Ehrlich. They had one child before divorcing in 1971. Ives published his autobiography, Wayfaring Stranger, in 1948. Over the next decade he also produced a number of folk-song anthologies, collections of his short stories, and a book of verse for children.

In the early 1950s Ives testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He did cooperate with the investigators to some extent because he had become disillusioned with communists. This led to a bitter public feud with the folksinger Pete Seeger, who had admired Ives earlier in their careers.

In 1955 Elia Kazan cast Ives as an authoritarian but well-spoken small-town sheriff who has to deal with a troubled James Dean in East of Eden, then cast him as Big Daddy in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a role he reprised on the screen in 1958. Kazan, who directed both the play and the film, noted that he considered Ives the perfect choice for Big Daddy even though he did not have any formal training as an actor. That year turned out to be Ives’s high-water mark in film. For his role as a patriarch in The Big Country (1958) he received an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Ives’s banner year for record sales came in 1963 when “A Little Bitty Tear” and “A Funny Way of Laughing” appeared on the popular and country music charts. He also won a Grammy Award for the latter recording. On television, he narrated the 1964 production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In 1971 Ives married Dorothy Koster, and the couple settled in Anacortes. Although he slowed his pace in the 1970s and 1980s, Ives still continued to entertain. He had a regular part on “The Lawyers” segment of the TV series The Bold Ones from 1970 to 1972 and appeared in the miniseries Roots in 1977. His last album of original music was released in 1993. Ives died in Anacortes from complications of mouth cancer. He was buried at the Mound Cemetery in Jasper County, Illinois.

Ultimately Ives succeeded in every form of entertainment he undertook, with more than thirty movies, 100 record albums, and appearances in thirteen Broadway productions. He is probably best known for his singing, as evinced by the poet Carl Sandburg, whose words about Ives are inscribed on the entertainer’s tombstone: “The mightiest ballad singer of this or any other century.”

Ives’s biography is Wayfaring Stranger (1948). Among his other major writings are the Burl Ives Song Book (1953) and Song in America: Our Musical Heritage (1962). See also his Tales of America (1954). Information about the controversy with Pete Seeger can be found in Seeger’s memoir, How Can I Keep from Singing (1981), written with David King Dunaway. For further reading about Ives’s life, see Current Biography 1960. An article that focuses on Ives’s recordings is in Neal Walters and Brian Mansfield, eds., MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Apr. 1995).

Terry Ballard