Ives, Burl (1909-1995)

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Ives, Burl (1909-1995)

Perhaps the most versatile entertainer America has produced in the twentieth century, Burl Ives did it all. He sang; acted on stage, screen, and television; wrote songs and prose; compiled books of traditional music—which he often arranged—and taught music in a series of popular guitar manuals. Once dubbed by Carl Sandburg as "the mightiest ballad singer of any century," throughout his life Ives remained quintessentially American. A man of strong populist leanings (as evidenced by his 1949 autobiography The Wayfaring Stranger), Ives always saw himself as a grassroots folksinger. It is Ives's musical legacy that remains his most significant contribution, preserving for future generations an enormous wealth of material, a musical portrait of the America he had known.

Born to a farm family of modest means in Jasper County, Illinois, Ives was raised on music. His whole family sang. His maternal grandmother taught him the ballads of her Scotch-Irish-English forefathers. By the time he was four, Ives was performing in public as a child entertainer and evangelical singer. Pressured to pursue a more conventional career than minstrel, in 1927 he entered Illinois State Teachers College with a mind toward becoming a football coach, but he left a year shy of attaining a degree, preferring to live the life of a vagabond to the static life of a teacher. Recalling his college career, Ives said, "I never did take to studies."

But Ives had several innate talents which kept him afloat during his early professional years, and they eventually would prove his most distinctive features as an entertainer. He was a friendly man, of abundant natural charm, with an innate gift for storytelling. He was also a singer who labored for years to perfect his voice. And at a time when folk music was looked down on as a musical form, Ives's faith in the ballads he had learned at his grandmother's knee—and while traversing the country—preserved him through the lean years prior to his meteoric rise to fame.

While wandering throughout forty-six of the forty-eight states, Ives supported himself by playing music in bars or doing odd jobs, sleeping rough, and hitchhiking from town to town. In 1931 he was living at the International House in Manhattan, a cheap hotel catering to foreign students, working in its cafeteria while he continued the formal musical training he had begun in Terre Haute, Indiana. An avid music student, Ives absorbed the classical canon, finding work singing in churches and in madrigal groups. But his ambitions were hampered by a sinus problem which affected his voice as well as his lingering doubts about singing classical music. At heart he was still a folk balladeer. He credits one Ella Toedt, a well-known voice instructor of the day, with curing his sinus problem—enduring a year of falsetto exercises before he was rid of the blockage—and with encouraging his folk music. Soon Ives was singing ballads at charity events and parties, sharing his vast repertoire of folk songs with appreciative audiences that often included some of the leading lights of New York's leftist intelligentsia.

He was encouraged by his show business friends to try a hand at acting. Ives won a small part in an out-of-town production, then charmed his way into a nonsinging part in the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse (1938). The duo then cast him in a traveling production of I Married an Angel, which Ives followed with a four-month engagement at the Village Vanguard. By 1940 he had his own radio show, The Wayfaring Stranger, on which he sang and told stories from his years of traveling. Suddenly, folk songs were in vogue.

By 1945 Ives was starring in Sing Out Sweet Land, a musical revue based on the folk songs he had popularized on his radio broadcasts, and the next year he made his film debut, playing a singing cowboy in Smoky. He went on to appear in numerous Broadway productions, in films, and began a recording career that would eventually number more than one hundred releases. His visibility was further enhanced by his appearance as Big Daddy in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a role he already had popularized on Broadway. That year he won an Oscar for his performance opposite Gregory Peck in The Big Country.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Ives continued to appear in theater, film, and television productions, such as the Roots TV miniseries (1977), and portrayed a mean-spirited racist in noted filmmaker Samuel Fuller's last film, White Dog (1982). He also kept abreast of the times, expanding his repertoire to include standards like "Little Green Apples," and going so far as to cover Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing," although his fling with the counterculture was brief.

By the time of his death in 1995, Ives was best remembered as a singer of children's songs; a narrator of animated Christmas specials for television; the kindly, avuncular man with the hefty girth.

—Michael J. Baers

Further Reading:

Ives, Burl. Tales of America. Cleveland, World Publishing Co., 1964.

——. Wayfaring Stranger. New York, Whittelsey House, 1948.

——. A Wayfaring Stranger's Notebook. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.

Locher, Frances C., ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 103. Detroit, Gale Research, 1982.