The darker side of Burl Ives

A guest post from Moonraking reader & friend Jen F. (first guest post ever!):

So, Z. and I have recently gotten into listening to a CD of Burl Ives singing “Little White Duck” and other kids’ songs that we got at the library. I had these two Burl Ives records as a child that I loved. Most of all, I remember they had these strange old minor-key folk songs full of mumbled nonsense phrases that I found very haunting and fascinating when I was little. One of these songs, “Buckeye Jim,” later turned up on an Elizabeth Mitchell CD. But most of them weren’t on the Little White Duck CD, so I decided to look for more Burl Ives on Amazon. It turns out the records I had were never released as CDs, but one of them, The Lollipop Tree, could be had in good shape (and a decent price) from a used LP dealer, so I ordered one. It’s definitely exactly the one I had. As J. commented, “Who knows, maybe it IS yours!” So Z. and I sat down to listen to these weird old songs (and also the title track, “Lollipop Tree,” which he had already gotten to know from a YouTube video; it’s much more cheery). As soon as I heard them, I immediately remembered them, though they’d been quite hazy in my mind. As a kid, though, I barely registered any of the actual lyrics. The one I remembered most was “Tam Pierce.” This turns out to be a story about a guy who lends his horse to a bunch of friends and never gets it back, and then you find out the horse is dead. The strange part, though, is that every verse has a list of the “friends” in question that Burl kind of mutters in this incantatory way: “Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davey, Daniel Whiddon, Harry Hawk…” This was the part that seemed most compellingly creepy to me as a kid. Even better, though, was “Wee Cooper o’ Fife,” which has this delightful nonsense refrain: “There was a wee cooper who lived in fife/ Nickety, nockety, noo, noo, noo/ And he has gotten a gentle wife/ Hey Willie Wallacky, hey John Dougall/ Alane quo’ rushety, roo, roo, roo.”

Well, as a kid I never really listened to the actual story in this one either, and it turns out the deal is the wife thinks because she’s of a higher class she doesn’t need to do any housework, so the cooper beats her into submission! Great song for a kids’ record! I was rather appalled, esp. since Z. always wants to know every word a song is saying. Maybe I’ll try to skip this one when we play it… (Here’s a complete transcription of the lyrics.)

Even stranger, though, is that it turns out the schoolchildren in Hitchcock’s The Birds sing an American version of this song (with different lyrics–no wife-beating) right before they get attacked by our feathered friends. Finally, to cap it all off, at the end of side 1 Burl sings a song called “Lavender Cowboy,” which is about a cowboy who wants to be like the other “he-men” but “only has two hairs on his chest”!!

Burl Ives! Who knew??

9 thoughts on “The darker side of Burl Ives”

  1. I too had a Burl Ives record as a child but not the one you are describing. “Lavendar Cowboy” is featured in the great, great documentary Before Stonewall (about early 20th-century LGBT culture)–I recommend it highly.


  2. Yay! Jen’s writing about music again.

    Burl Ives is a big deal in our household–sparked by the “Gray Goose” being used on the soundtrack to Fantastic Mr. Fox, but fuelled by my wife’s childhood love of Mr. Ives. She should be along shortly to offer her comments.

  3. This post (and our conversation about it) makes me wish I had all my vinyl back: albums all inherited from my grandfather (god only knows what is in there, but he was obsessed with Fats Domino) and my uncles (this being how I heard Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the tender age of something-or-other, and vividly remember being transfixed and realizing I would never be the same).

    Unless my cousins have ransacked (likely), these boxes should be intact somewhere in Virginia. Time for a road trip!

  4. I am looking for the title of a Burl Ives song with the words. “This is the last will and testament of James Earl Bandy, being of sound body, soul and mind. I don’t have much to leave you, just the love of an old man, born in the year of our Lord, nineteen aught nine.” Anyone remember it?

  5. The list of character names may have been a list of men whose names he turned over to Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s. Many entertainer-types were called to name names of other high profile people accused of being Communists or dupes. Most declined, such as Pete Seeger, while others gave names, such as Burl Ives. Ives list of names in songs may have been a way to repent. Or my guess at his list of names might not be true.

  6. Heck, the Little White Duck was already sad! The poor lily pad crying at the end after everyone left it alone made me feel so bad for it… Was there an album with that story and song plus Froggy went a Courtin’ and The Tailor and the Mouse? I remember those being all together, but maybe they were on different albums?

  7. Compare to Jay Z’s music trying tro change all people against God. I will take Burl in his time. Dont mention Beyonce with her Satan alter personality.

  8. As the #metoo & #believeallwomen movement enter their 5th year, I am beginning to see the wisdom of the culture 100+ years ago. God Bless Burl Ives for immortalizing in song the knowledge acquired over 1000’s of years of human civilization.

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