Burl Ives Biography

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives, 14 June 1909, Hunt Township, Jasper County, Illinois, USA, d. 14 April 1995, Anacortes, Washington, USA. One of the world’s most celebrated singers of folk ballads, with a gentle, intimate style, Ives was also an actor on the stage and screen, and an anthologist and editor of folk music. The son of tenant farmers in the ‘Bible Belt’ of Illinois, he was singing in public for money with his brothers and sisters when he was four years old. Many of the songs they sang originated in the British Isles, and were taught to them by their tobacco-chewing grandmother. After graduating from high school in 1927 Ives went to college with the aim of becoming a professional football coach. Instead, he left college early, in 1930, and hitch-hiked throughout the USA, Canada and Mexico, supporting himself by doing odd jobs and singing to his own banjo accompaniment, picking up songs everywhere he went. After staying for a time in Terre Haute, Indiana, attending the State Teachers College, he moved to New York and studied with vocal coach Ekka Toedt, before enrolling for formal music training at New York University.

Despite this classical education, he was determined to devote himself to folk songs. In 1938 he played character roles in several plays, and had a non-singing role on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical The Boys From Syracuse, followed by a four-month singing engagement at New York’s Village Vanguard nightclub. He then toured with another Rodgers and Hart show, I Married An Angel. In 1940 Ives performed on radio, singing his folk ballads to his own guitar accompaniment on programmes such as Back Where I Come From, and was soon given his own series entitled Wayfaring Stranger. The introductory ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’, one of America’s favourite folk songs, and by then already over 100 years old, became his long-time theme. Drafted into the US Army in 1942, Ives sang in Irving Berlin’s military musical revue This Is The Army, both on Broadway and on tour. In 1944, after medical discharge from the forces, Ives played a long stint at New York’s Cafe Society Uptown nightclub, and also appeared on Broadway with Alfred Drake in Sing Out Sweet Land, a ‘Salute To American Folk And Popular Music’. For his performance, Ives received the Donaldson Award as Best Supporting Actor.

During the following year, he made a concert appearance at New York’s Town Hall, and played a return engagement in 1946. Also in that year he made his first movie, Smoky, with Fred MacMurray and Anne Baxter, and appeared with Josh White in a full-length feature about folk music. Ives’ other movies, in which he played characters ranging from villainous to warmly sympathetic, included So Dear To My Heart (1948), East Of Eden (1955) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), in which he played Big Daddy, recreating his highly acclaimed Broadway performance in the Tennessee Williams play; he also appeared in Wind Across The Everglades (1958), Desire Under The Elms (1958) andThe Big Country (1958), for which he received an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor; and Our Man In Havana (1960). In 1954 Ives appeared as Cap’n Andy Hawkes in a revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat at the New York City Center. In the 60s and 70s he appeared regularly on US television, sometimes in his dramatic series, such as OK Crackerby and The Bold Ones, and several musical specials. In the 80s, he continued to contribute character roles to feature films and television, and performed in concerts around the world.

Back in 1948, his first chart record, ‘Blue Tail Fly’, teamed him with the Andrews Sisters. The song, written by Dan Emmett in 1846, had been in the Ives repertoire for some years. Other US Top 30 hits through to the early 60s included ‘Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)’, ‘Riders In The Sky (Cowboy Legend)’, ‘On Top Of Old Smoky’, ‘The Wild Side Of Life’, ‘True Love Goes On And On’, ‘A Little Bitty Tear’, ‘Funny Way Of Laughin’’ and ‘Call Me Mr. In-Between’. Many other songs became associated with him, such as ‘Foggy Foggy Dew’, ‘Woolie Boogie Bee’, ‘Turtle Dove’, ‘Ten Thousand Miles’, ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’, ‘I Know An Old Lady (Who Swallowed A Fly)’, ‘Aunt Rhody’ and ‘Ballad Of Davy Crockett’. Ives published several collections of folk ballads and tales, including America’s Musical Heritage - Song Of America, Burl Ives Song Book, Tales Of America, Burl Ives Book Of Irish Songs, and for children, Sailing On A Very Fine Day. In 1993, in the distinguished company of Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Oscar Brand and Paul Robeson Jnr., Burl Ives performed in an emotional and nostalgic concert at the 92nd Street ‘Y’ Theatre in New York. Ives died in April 1995.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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