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??