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Burl Ives

Author Kevin Shortsleeve
Air Date 6/14/2001

Burl Ives Transcript

If Burl Ives were alive today, he would be celebrating his ninety-second birthday – but the thing about Burl Ives, is that he possessed an ageless quality – he was a sort of perpetual jolly uncle; timeless, and forever fun-loving.

Though his career was widely varied and included acting, writing, and acceptance as a serious folk musician, it was as a performer of children’s music that he is best remembered. With signature songs like Little White Duck, I know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, On Top of Old Smokey, and Blue Tail Fly, Ives made the folk music revival of the fifties and sixties accessible to children.

Born in 1909 in Hunt City Township, Illinois, Ives first performed at age four, when he received a quarter for singing the ballad “Barbara Allen” at a picnic. He later attended several universities and during the 1930s he wandered the country as a musical hobo, collecting folk songs and jotting down notes for an autobiography called Wayfaring Stranger. His big break came in 1940 when he began appearing as a folk singer on NBC radio.

An accomplished actor, Ives appeared in several well-known motion pictures including East of Eden, Cat at On a Hot Tin Roof, and an Oscar winning performance in 1958’s The Big Country. But it was the 1964 Rankin Bass television production of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer that gave Ives both his most memorable role, as Sam the Snowman, and his best selling single, Holly Jolly Christmas. The producers of the program chose Ives because they felt that his presence would reassure children that everything was going to be fine. Rankin liked his folksy cheer and said that Ives created a comforting atmosphere. Ives later wrote, “When I tour across the country, I am recognized as Sam the Snowman from airline stewardesses down to the smallest children.”

Ives continued to act and sing for many years and appeared in several Disney films. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 86. In suggesting why it is that Ives was able to so naturally connect with children, it is probably best to take the man at his word. He once wrote “I like singing to children [because] they are interested in the same things I am: frogs, flies and bees.”

“Oh I went Down South to See my Sal
Sing polly wolly doodle all the day
My Sal she (lyrics unclear)
Sing polly wolly doodle all the day
Fair thee well – Fair thee well
Fair thee well my fairy-fey
For I’m off to Louisiana for to see my Suzyanna
Sing polly wolly doodle all the day”

Posted in Film, Music