Folksinger, actor. The son of Illinois tenant farmers, Ives learned traditional ballads from
his grandmother, played banjo in high school, and built a repertoire of American song in
the 1930s on an extended tramp throughout North America. Setding in New York City in
1937, he did stage and radio work until 1940, when CBS gave him his own show and the
sobriquet “The Wayfaring Stranger.” From this show and his work in the Broadway folk
cavalcade Sing Out, Sweet Land (1944), Ives became the best-known exponent of
American folksong until the advent of the folksong revival in the 1950s and 1960s. With
lively arrangements of such old-time numbers as “The Foggy Foggy Dew,” “The Big
Rocky Candy Mountain,” and his signature tune, “BlueTail Fly,” he fulfilled what he later identified as his life’s purpose—to promote the “shared
heritage” of “native American folk music.”
Ives also achieved success as an actor and a country music singer. He won an Oscar
for his work in The Big Country (1958), although he is better remembered for his screen
portrayal of Big Daddy in CatonaHot Tin Roof (1958), a role he had created on
Broadway in what critic Walter Kerr called “Rabelaisian contribution.” His country
career peaked in 1962, with three songs topping the country charts, and “Funny Way of
Laughin” earning a Grammy. Ives’ dedication to traditional song was also evident in his
editing of several songbooks, including the popular Burllves Songbook (1953).
He died on April 14, 1995, Good Friday, at the age of eighty-five.
Ives, Burl. 1948.Way faring Stranger. New York: McGraw-Hill.
——. 1962. Song in America: Our Musical Heritage. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce.