15 Sunday Sep 2013
(I introduced the great American scholar, Leslie Fiedler, in Part I of these essays on children’s music. My comments are informed by concepts introduced in a graduate course Leslie taught on children’s literature.)
Burl Ives collected and recorded hundreds of folk songs. To me he is one of the greatest folklorists around. His high sweet friendly voice is perfect for children’s music. Released in 1965, although some of the songs are just Burl and his six string, most of the arrangements on this album are very elaborate, played by a full orchestra, with beefy background vocals, typical of almost all the children’s records I owned as a child during the 1950’s. But the arrangements are eloquently descriptive of the words, the words are innocent and profound and alarming, and the whole thing is carried by the subtlety, sincerity, and silliness of Ives’ singing. He has such a vast knowledge of folk music that he can draw on dozens of ancient songs from Europe and America that were not originally intended for children, but which are perfectly suited for that purpose. And if you pay close attention, you will realize he sings, not just about big fat cows and little grey cats, but unrequited love, scary witches, marital strife, poverty, and death – the stuff of the greatest children’s stories and songs.
Ives sings this eerie arrangement of Vachel Lindsay’s poem, “The Moon is the North Wind’s Cookie.”
The Moon’s the North Wind’s cookie.
He bites it, day by day,
Until there’s but a rim of scraps
That crumble all away.
The South Wind is a baker.
He kneads clouds in his den,
And bakes a crisp new moon that . . . greedy
North . . . Wind . . . eats . . . again!
This stunning poem could be a parable of samsara, the reincarnation of souls. But it is also about goods being consumed and replaced. Vachel Lindsay was, after all, a twentieth century American.
Leslie Fiedler analyzed the Oz books by L. Frank Baum as archetypal Americana. Despite all the magic and weirdness and witchery, the core values of the books are entirely commercial and technological. In the Oz books, one of the most important magical powers turns out to be electricity. It is mechanical flim flam that makes the Wizard appear to be magical. Baum was enthralled by the scientific magic of 20th Century America. Baum, in retrospect, is one of the originators of steam punk.
As Fiedler explained, one of the most explicit expressions of this American idealism in the Oz books is that everything is replaceable and everything can live. This is a uniquely American value. The books say over and over that there is no death. Baum believed in the eternal transmigration of souls. But in the Oz books, instead of the rebirth of incorporeal souls, we find a completely physical theory of immortality based on the American notions of mass production and replacement of damaged parts.
For example, in The Tin Woodman of Oz, we learn that the Tin Man was once a human – or Ozian – wood cutter named Nick. He was in love with a Munchkin named Nimmie Annie who was a servant of the Wicked Witch of the East. The Witch learns of their love and enchants the wood cutter’s ax to chop off parts of Nick’s body. It is technical the ingenuity of Ku-Klip the tin smith who comes to the rescue. He replaces each severed limb with one of tin until Nick is entirely made of tin. Years later, the Tin Man encounters his own severed head in a cupboard. The head is still alive and is very unpleasant company. There are few passages in any literature that are more disturbing.
As Oz evolved from one book to the next, Baum eventually envisaged a utopia where no one ever dies, not even severed hunks from people’s bodies. Oz is a world in which scientifically manufactured goods and commodities are capable of defeating all sorrow and all strife. Even death. And so it is with the baker who renews Vachel Lindsay’s eternally reincarnating cookie.
While Burl Ives is associated with Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie and other radical folkies of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, as the arrangements on this record show, he is really a much more main stream entertainer. Of course it helped that he is white, which is why I don’t remember seeing Ella Jenkins doing children’s songs on TV from that period. Throughout my entire childhood, I can count on one finger the number of times I saw Pete Seeger on television: when he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers Show and, as a consequence, was blacklisted from TV for decades. I don’t know how many times, growing up, I watched Ives on television; he was a perennial presence. Moreover Ives is an accomplished Hollywood movie actor, even winning an Academy Award as supporting actor in the movie Big Country.
And did he suck up to the House Unamerican Activities Committee? Pete Seeger thought so. I don’t know. It doesn’t change the greatness of his music. No one ever has, or ever will, record greater children’s music than Burl Ives.
Vachel Lindsay, Albert M. Hague, “The Moon is the North Wind’s Cookie,” Publisher not credited, Licensing Agency not credited (1965). From: Burl Ives, The Lollypop Tree: Burl Ives Sings Folk Songs for Children, Harmony Records, XLP 79724 (1965). Cover Art: unknown.