Born Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives, June 14, 1909, in Hunt Township, Jasper County, IL; son of Frank and Cordelia White Ives; married Helen Payne Ehrlich, 1949 (divorced, 1971); married Dorothy Koster, 1971; children: (first marriage) Alexander. Education: Attended Eastern Illinois State Teachers College, 1927-30, and New York University, 1937-38. Addresses: c/o Beakel and Jennings Agency, 427 N. Canon Dr., Suite 205, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

Throughout his life and career Burl Ives was many things; he was a folk singer, actor, storyteller, writer, and anthologist. His real role, however, was, as Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, as "an American sentimentalist in the tradition of Carl Sandburg and Norman Rockwell." Ives himself wrote, in his preface to Burl Ives' Tales of America, "I was born in America, I grew up in America, and I went to school in America.... I ... tramped the country from one end to the other with my guitar over my shoulder [and] I discovered how dramatic and thrilling the true history of our country really is." In many ways, in whatever he did, in the songs he sang and the stories he told, Ives first and foremost celebrated this love for his country and its history.

Ives was born and raised in what might be looked on as the heart of Americana: a small town in the Midwest. He enjoyed singing with his family and learned to play the banjo as a kid. And it was at the young age of four that Ives started performing in public, singing for change with his brothers and sisters; he also performed in many community productions during his childhood and youth. After playing football in high school, though, Ives entered college intending to become a high school football coach. A sort of musical wanderlust overtook him in his junior year, however, and he left school to travel the country, playing songs for food and shelter when he could, doing day labor when he could, and always collecting songs and stories from the folks he met.

In 1937, Ives moved to New York for formal vocal instruction and to break into show business. The music world did not welcome him immediately, though, for his music was viewed as having too much of a "hillbilly" sound. In the meantime, the stage offered Ives his first successes when he appeared Off- Broadway in Ah Wilderness!, Pocahontas Preferred, and Flight in 1938. And in the same year he appeared on Broadway in George Abbott's The Boys from Syracuse.

In addition to success, Ives' acting also seemed to give him more musical credibility, for by 1940 he had his own radio program, The Wayfarin' Stranger, and was considered, at least by the young folk singer Pete Seeger, who appeared with him at the 1940 Grapes of Wrath benefit for Californian migrant farm workers, to be one of the country's most distinguished folksingers. After several years of singing in New York City nightclubs, Ives made his recital debut at New York's Town Hall in 1945. That same year, he traded the East Coast for the West Coast and made his Hollywood debut in the film Smokey (1945).

In the decades that followed, Ives continued to sing and act, but also added writing to his list of credits. In 1948 he published his autobiography, The Wayfaring Stranger, and he also published several collections of short stories throughout his career, including The Wayfaring Stranger's Notebook and Burl Ives' Tales of America. Ives seemed to see writing these tales of Americana as an extension of his folk singing, with the same origins and the same purposes. And the songs and stories collected during his youthful ramblings were also valuable expressions of the American ethos for Ives.

"My mind is full of the things I have learned," wrote Ives in his preface to Burl Ives' Tales of America. "And since I am by nature a collector of all kinds of things--of songs and stories and tidbits of information, and of people who have things to tell me or who can open up new paths for me to explore--I have managed to assemble notes and jottings and clippings and books and documents, and all manner of material which overflow my bookcases and my files. From all these things I have been jotting down my own notes and writing my own stories, and doing this has given me much joy.... All the things I have put down here are living legends for me, and I tell them as I feel and live them. This is the way I sing my songs, too. And just as each song requires a special kind of singing so each of the tales in these pages require a special kind of telling." Ives not only anthologized stories, but also produced several anthologies of folk songs, including The Burl Ives Songbook (1953) and The Burl Ives Book of Irish Songs (1958). He continued his special kind of telling and singing for decades.

While Ives's motivation for his art was always the celebration of the American people, he was not always viewed as the perfect American. In the 1950s, along with almost every other folk singer and many Hollywood entertainers, he ran into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. And although Ives was cleared by the committees, his testimony was bitterly criticized by some. Fellow folk singer Pete Seeger, as quoted in How Can I Keep from Singing, accused Ives of "fingering, like any common stool pigeon, some of his radical associates."

Ives did testify before the committee, but he volunteered to do so because, according to an interview with the New York Times, he was disillusioned with the party when he discovered that they were not, in fact, "professional do-gooders on a political level, as they have long masqueraded." While Seeger claimed that Ives talked to the committee "because he felt it was the only way to preserve his lucrative contracts," Ives stated that he believed that the party was an enemy of the country he loved. Although Seeger remained bitter towards Ives, and Seeger fans avoided Ives' recordings, Ives was not even the one who named Seeger or the Weavers to the committee.

For most Americans, Ives represents the solid, old-fashioned American who tells American stories and sings real American folk songs. In the 1990s, folk music means many different things to many different people, and a "folk music festival" may include such diverse sounds as blues, reggae, electric pop, or jazz. What folk music officially means, though, is a set of traditional songs, sung by ordinary people, for their own pleasure, not in concert, but on the front porch. Ives's music is the real folk music, the traditional songs; Ives brought these songs into the mainstream of American popular music, and has been instrumental in keeping that part of American heritage alive.

by Robin Armstrong

Burl Ives's Career

Itinerant musician 1930-37; stage debut in Ah, Wilderness!, Rockridge Theater, Carmel, NY, 1938; hosted radio show Wayfarin' Stranger, 1940-42; New York concert debut, New York's Town Hall, 1945. Broadway appearances include The Boys from Syracuse, 1938, Heavenly Express, 1940, Sing Out, Sweet Land, 1944, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955; film appearances include Smoky, 1945, Green Grass of Wyoming, 1948, So Dear to My Heart, 1948, Station West, 1948, Sierra, 1950, East of Eden, 1955, The Power and the Prize, 1956, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958, Wind Across the Everglades, 1958, The Big Country, 1958, Desire Under the Elms, 1958, Our Man in Havana, 1960, and Robin and the Seven Hoods, 1964; television appearances include The Bold Ones, 1970-72; Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (narrator), 1972, and Roots, 1977.

Burl Ives's Awards

Donaldson Award, 1945; Academy Award, 1958, for The Big Country.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Interesting piece but who fingered Pete Seeger? You ought to have mentioned his Irish grandmothers, Kate White and O'Flynn and his travel in Ireland 1952-1953. He was also responsible for actor Eddie Albert giving food and shelter to Woodie Gutherie. Mr Ives was reunited 41 years later with the great Pete Seeger who joined him on, Blue Tale Fly God be with you, and with Burl Ives...... James Molloy.