On September 15, 1988, Burl Ives, a 79-year-old, white-bearded icon of music and film took to the Lobero stage in a one-man show about another American legend, poet, and essayist Walt Whitman.
The Mystic Trumpeter – Walt Whitman at 70, was written by Ives and his wife, Dorothy, and was Burl Ives’ final appearance on stage, marking the end of a remarkable 7-decade performance career.
Burle Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in 1909 to English Irish tenant farmers in southern Illinois. He learned about music from his tobacco-chewing, pipe-smoking grandmother and first sang in public at a soldier’s reunion when he was only 4 years old. In 1928, Ives enrolled at Eastern Illinois Teachers College but dropped out before graduating and spent much of the early 1930s hitchhiking and riding boxcars across America with his banjo, doing odd jobs and learning songs from cowboys, miners, hoboes, and itinerant preachers.
In 1937 Ives moved to New York City, where he was a regular performer at the newly opened Village Vanguard club – the epicenter of Greenwich Village’s budding folk scene. It was also at this time that Ives began acting and he made his Broadway debut in 1938. By 1940, Burl Ives had his own national radio show on CBS, called The Wayfarin’ Stranger, where he popularized many of the traditional folk songs he had learned while hitchhiking around the country a few years earlier.
Many music historians feel that the American folk music revival began in New York in 1940 with the Almanac Singers, a folk group founded by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
The group specialized in topical and political songs – many reflecting personal experiences during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl – and advocating anti-war, anti-racism, and pro-union philosophy. Burl Ives sang with the Almanac Singers on occasion, though he was more well-known for non-political ballads and traditional folk songs like “Foggy Foggy Dew,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and “On Top of Old Smoky.”
“Burl Ives is America’s most beloved singer of folk songs. He has sung America high, wide, low and long….In his songs, he has made American history and legend shine like stars.” – Horace Reynolds in the Christian Science Monitor
In 1955 Burl Ives was cast in the role of “Big Daddy” in the Broadway play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He also starred with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the 1958 film version of the Tennessee Williams story. In 1958, Ives won the Academy Award for best-supporting actor for The Big Country, a story of two families feuding over water rights.
From 1975 – 1990 Burl and his wife Dorothy lived in Santa Barbara. Home was “Casa del Sueño,” a grand Montecito estate which had been built by the philanthropist Amy Du Pont. The couple was active in Santa Barbara social life and were frequently spotted cruising State Street with their little white poodle in Burl’s bright red, vintage Cadillac convertible.
While we wait in the wings for things to return to normal, we hope you enjoy a peek into the Lobero archives.
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