My Father, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and Australia’s Folk Music Heritage
May 22nd, 2020 | Burl Ives, Music, Pete Seeger, Songs
When I was a young man in the 70s, I became enthralled with Australian folk music. Bands like The Bushwackers, The Cobbers, Paradiddle and Captain Moonlight were at their peak. A particular highlight was Friday evenings at the Dan O’Connell pub in Carlton – standing room only – listening to the Bushwackers. I must have mentioned the phrase ‘folk music’ to my father at some point, and he was puzzled. (Our relationship was always rather fraught, and we struggled to connect with each other.) He asked me if I was referring to Burl Ives. I was shocked, and had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew about Burl Ives was that he was an elderly, somewhat overweight and rather boring American crooner. No progress was made in closing the gap between us.
Only in recent years have I come to understand what my father was referring to, and the role that Burl Ives played in re-introducing Australians to their own folk songs. It goes something like this.
In 1952, the Australian Broadcasting Commission invited Ives to visit Australia and perform a series of concerts. He did so, as part of a world tour.
When he arrived in Sydney on 25th May, he was mobbed by more than 150 teenagers (The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 26th May 1952, page 1). (Not quite Beatlemania, but still…) Quoting from the article,
He wore a black glengarry, short tweed jacket, black tie, grey socks, tan shoes – and a kilt.
He explained that he was made an honorary bard of the McGregor clan after he sang in London last April. He hopes to sing in Edinburgh in August.
“I like kilts,” he said. “They are warm in winter and cool in summer. I will wear them in Australia, but not on stage.”
Mr. Ives brought two guitars and a set of Northumberland pipes.
“I can’t play the pipes yet but I will practise here.”
Ives was a well-known international figure, and had the reputation at the time of being America’s principal exponent of folk songs and ballads. It was a busy and no doubt highly testing time for Ives, as he had chosen to appear as a witness at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) earlier that month. With the commencement of the Korean War in June 1950, anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S increased greatly, and a pamphlet, ‘Red Channels’, published a list of entertainers in the television and radio broadcast industry with suspected Communist leanings. They were to be banned from all future public performances. Ives had performed for many left wing audiences and supported many left wing organisations. His name was on the list. The only way to clear one’s name was to convince the committee that you had been duped or conned into such involvement by somebody else, and naming them. The hearings lasted a number of years, and Ives did not cover himself with glory. The website of The Association of Cultural Equity (an American organisation, inspired by the work of musicologist Alan Lomax) tells us that, according to Ronald D. Cohen, author of ‘Rainbow Quest – The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940 – 1970’, Ives named four people. These included his former publicity director Arthur Meltzer and his friend, fellow performer Richard Dyer Bennet. As a result of this, Ives’ career continued to flourish, while Bennet’s stopped dead in its tracks.
Others suggest Ives named many more people, including Pete Seeger. One of those who claims that Ives named Seeger is John Simkin, author of the British website, Spartacus Educational. The website takes its name from the film of the same name. The film’s scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was also a prominent victim of the HUAC hearings.
Woody Guthrie visited Burl Ives some time after the hearings. Guthrie later commented to fellow folk performer Oscar Brand that Ives was “God’s angry man.” When Brand asked who he was angry with, Guthrie replied “He’s angry with himself.”
Pete Seeger was about ten years younger than Burl Ives, and visited Australia eleven years later (1963). (My father, by the way, was a great fan of Seeger, especially ‘Little Boxes’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.) Pete Seeger’s name had also been on the ‘Red Channels’ list. Seeger did not name anybody during the hearings and, as a result, his career suffered terribly for a long period of time. Seeger was ferocious in his criticism of Burl Ives’ behaviour. He accused him of “fingering, like any common stool pigeon, some of his radical associates of the early 1940s. He did this not because he wanted to but because he felt it was the only way to preserve his lucrative contracts.” Seeger and Ives did ‘bury the hatchet’ to some extent in later years, and the two performed “The Blue Tail Fly” in a duet at a benefit concert in 1993, in what was to be Ives’ last public performance.
In an article published in The Australian Women’s Weekly of Wednesday 7th May, 1952 (page 12), immediately prior to Ives’ visit, he calls for Australians to send him songs to perform. He makes a similar call in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 17th May (page 7), entitled ‘Our Forgotten Folk Music’, by John Dempsey. Although he subsequently claimed to have received many in the mail (The Daily Telegraph Monday 14th July 1952, page 5), the songs Ives eventually chose were given to him by an Australian Catholic priest, Percy Jones. (A detailed explanation of how this came about can be found in Keith McKenry’s fascinating book, ‘Australia’s Lost Folk Songs.’)
Ives performed a number of concerts throughout Australia. They were packed out, and received rave reviews. Not surprisingly, the many newspaper articles relating to Ives’ visit to Australia (available now on ‘Trove’) make no mention of his involvement in the HUAC hearings. Immediately prior to Ives’ departure from Australia for New Zealand on 16th July, he recorded nine Australian folk songs, accompanied by the Four Guardsmen (a quartet from Sydney) for his label, ‘Decca Records’. The songs were initially released as four singles (songs on both sides), and an album containing all nine songs followed in early 1953. These recordings were a great success, prompting the broadcast on radio of Australian folk songs in the U.S. as well as Australia. To quote from an article entitled ‘Our Folk Songs On Record’ from The (Sydney) Sunday Herald (8th March 1953, page 12):
The release last week of recorded versions of nine Australian folk sings is one of the most significant events in the record industry, and perhaps in Australian music, for many years. It shows that, for the first time, we are taking a real interest in the beginnings of music in this country, and are seeking to preserve what we can – even if it is almost too late.
A songbook, ‘Burl Ives’ Folio of Australian Folk Songs’ was also published in 1953. A presumably more considered and less rushed album, ‘Australian Folk Songs’, containing 12 songs, was released in 1959. These recordings, together with the ‘folio’, went a long way towards popularising Australian folk songs among Australian audiences.
While in Australia, Ives had spoken enthusiastically of plans to return the following year and tour the outback (The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, Monday 14th July 1942, page 5). However, I can find no record of this tour having taken place. (He did get to Broken Hill in 1952.) A further proposed tour in 1955 (Sunday Times, Perth, Sunday 1st August 1954, page 22) appears also not to have occurred. Perhaps the HUAC hearings proved an overwhelming distraction.
Thinking again of my father, he had in his collection two LP albums of Australian folk songs sung by the Australian singer and actor Lionel Long. I loved these, and played them over and over, especially ‘Songs of a Sunburnt Country’. These were released in the early 1960s, and would no doubt have been very much influenced/inspired by the performances and recordings of Burl Ives. It puzzles me therefore that my father had so much trouble understanding what I was talking about when I referred to ‘folk music.’ Perhaps he simply didn’t make the connection.
My only regret is that it was Burl Ives and not Pete Seeger who made such a massive contribution to Australians’ appreciation of their own musical history. I am probably being too tough on Ives, though. He was placed in a terrible position, and I cannot begin to imagine how I might have behaved in a similar situation. I love to think I would have responded more like Seeger than Ives, but Pete Seeger was a man of unusual courage.
Richard Dyer Bennet responded to his blacklisting by creating his own record label, using his living room as a studio. A stroke in 1972 put an end to any further public performances. He died in 1991. Only in recent years has his musical legacy begun to be fully appreciated. A video of Bennet singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in 1962 can be found on YouTube here:
© Stephen Whiteside 04.05.2020
‘Australia’s Lost Folk Songs – The Treasures that slipped through Percy Jones’ fingers’ by Keith McKenry (The Rams Skull Press, 2008)
‘Percy Jones – Australia’s Reluctant Folklorist’ by Keith McKenry (Overland 186, 2007, pp 25 – 33)
I wish to acknowledge the generous assistance provided by Keith McKenry in the preparation of this article.