Nothing Can Stop Us Now: Mickey Mouse and the Great American Songbook

Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway

Mickey Mouse and music are inextricably intertwined in my mind. It’s impossible to think of the groundbreaking 1928 film ‘Steamboat Willie’ without also thinking of the song “Steamboat Bill” (written by The Leighton Brothers and Ren Shields, and popularized by Arthur Collins), and the old American folk song “Turkey in the Straw” (which has roots as far back as 1795 and, in the manner of most folk songs, has a particularly convoluted history). 

Then there is the 1929 ditty “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo”, composed by Walt Disney and Carl Stalling. The song first appeared in the cartoon short ‘Mickey’s Follies’ and later became the theme for the early Mickey Mouse Clubs.

In those cartoons, Mickey was cheerful but prone to get into trouble. He constantly found himself in a fix, but his scrappy, resilient nature always won out in the end. The jaunty soundtrack tunes seem almost as much a part of Mickey’s personality as the antics and misadventures he gets into in the films. They’re the type of songs you might have heard on vaudeville, in a saloon, or at an Appalachian barn dance. In other words, they were songs of the people, perfectly matched to Mickey’s ‘everyman’ persona, like that of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ character. 

They’re also the type of songs you might expect a young Walt Disney to love. Though he went on to become a titan of animation and a business tycoon, his early days were that of a young boy from America’s mid-west. As a teen, he was a bit of a vaudevillian, performing as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator and engaging in a two-man comedy act. Like Mickey Mouse, he constantly found himself in some sort of a fix as he struggled to break into Hollywood, constantly fighting against poverty and failure, relying on his wits and innate talent to succeed. In many ways, Mickey was an animated analog of Walt Disney himself, so the music that represented the Mouse would naturally need to fit the man as well. 

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway Twister

In March of 2020, Disney opened Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It was the first ride-through attraction devoted to Mickey Mouse, a trackless dark ride that makes it feel as though Guests have stepped right into a cartoon short. As such, music was a key part of the attraction’s development. The resulting song, “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”, is a modern classic that not only sets the mood for the entire experience but is a perfect throwback to those early Mickey cartoons.

The song was written by the husband-and-wife team of Christopher and Elyse Willis. Both have a considerable history with the Disney company. Christopher scores The Lion Guard animated series, as well as the Disney Mickey Mouse Shorts. He also earned an Emmy nomination for his song ‘Jing-A-Ling-A-Ling’ from Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special. Elyse has worked as a vocal contractor on The Lion Guard and Disney Mickey Mouse Shorts, and also performs in the Los Angeles Master Chorale, where she regularly performs at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In an interview with Collider, Elyse stated, “Both Chris and I have similar musical backgrounds and the aesthetic that we like and grew up with, with classical music, the Great American Songbook, musical theater, and definitely, for me, tons of Disney.”

Christopher elaborated, “Apart from being really obsessed with music and classical music, I’m English and I grew up very into comedy and Monty Python. When I have lyrical ideas, they might be a bit tortured and a bit clever, and Elyse’s interests lean a bit more Broadway and a bit more Disney heritage. I might have views on lyrical things, but Elyse is a great musician, so she’ll have views on musical things. There’s an overlap, but a little bit of a difference, as well.”

When writing the song, Elyse states that the pair wanted it to be memorable, but not in an annoying way, which meant striking a balance between a catchy melody, and an overly simplistic jingle. Christopher noted that, when writing the number, they thought, “We want it to be a Mickey shorts type of song and a Great American Songbook kind of song. We love all of that stuff. Let’s not worry about whether it’s catchy or not. We’ll just write a good song.” 

Given the importance that both Christopher and Elyse placed upon the Great American Songbook, it’s worth taking a moment to explain just what they are talking about.

The Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley Historical Marker

The Great American Songbook Foundation defines the songbook as, “the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy. Often referred to as “American Standards,” the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1960s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.”

Looking through a list of composers and lyricists in the Great American Songbook is to explore a veritable smorgasbord of talent: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gerswhin, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Fats Waller, and Dorothy Fields, to name just a few. 

The songs of the Songbook are part of the collective unconscious, melodies that are so omnipresent in American culture, that we seem to know them without even knowing how. Pieces like “As Time Goes By,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” or “Singin’ In the Rain,” have been performed by countless artists over the years. They are as much a part of American heritage as stories about Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, or Johnny Appleseed. 

Much of this music can be traced to the area known as Tin Pan Alley in New York City. As noted on the page Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Music Project, “The first music publisher to move to the block was M. Witmark and Sons, who moved uptown from 14th Street to 49-51 West 28th Street in 1893, becoming the first publisher to set up shop in the block…By 1900, Twenty-eighth Street knew the largest concentration of popular music publishers any single street had known up to that time, 14th Street not excluded. Music publishers occupied buildings on both sides of West 28th Street, and some could be found in offices around the corner on Broadway, or just west of Sixth Avenue. At one time or another, between 1893 and 1910, the following publishers were located on the Alley (note that several moved from one address to another). The source for these addresses is David A. Jasen’s Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003) as well as copies of covers of sheet music on file at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in the “Brill Building” research file.”

As the page goes on to state, “Without exaggeration, it can be asserted that this is the block where the popular music industry as we now know it began…” A 1903 article by Roy L. McCardell states, “Tin Pan Alley?” – it’s twenty-eighth street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, the centre of the song publishing business in this country, and it gets its name from the jangling of pianos that are banged and rattled there day and night as new songs are being “tried on.” Every day you’ll see noted people in the musical comedy world hunting in the “Alley” for songs that will add to their fame.”

Irving Berlin and the Rules of Songwriting

Irving Berlin at the Piano

With this brief history in mind, let’s look at how The Willises embraced this songwriting tradition in the composition of “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”. 

Perhaps the quintessential songwriter of both the Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley, is Irving Berlin. Songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Putting On the Ritz” are perfect examples of the form. Berlin would define the nine essential rules of songwriting:

  • The melody should remain within the range of the normal human voice.
  • The title should be easily remembered
  • The song should be gender neutral so that they are able to be sung by anyone.
  • The song should contain ‘heart interest’, even if it is comic. 
  • The song must be original, not derivative.
  • The lyrics should deal with ideas or emotions that are common to everyone
  • The song should be written in a way that is singable to everyone with a lot of open vowels. 
  • The song must be simple. As Berlin states, “Simplicity is achieved only after much hard work, but you must attain it.”
  • Finally, the songwriter must look at the composition as work, and be willing to write, write, and re-write. 

With those dictums in mind, let’s take a look at the lyrics of “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”:

Nothing can stop us now.

I’ll tell ya how

We’re gonna make it happen.

Let’s take a ride

And spend a day in the countryside.

Good times are here to stay 

Let’s get away

And have a perfect picnic.

We’ll sing a song,

And absolutely nothing will go wrong.


We’re heading down the open highway,

And we’re glad you’re going my way.

Everything is just so peachy keen.

Nothing can stop us now.

I don’t know how

It can be any better.

We’ll travel hand in hand

Across this wonderland.

Strike up the marching band

‘Cause nothing

Can stop us now!

It’s easy to see how the lyrics and title fulfill Berlin’s rules. They deal with very human feelings of anticipation and joy as Mickey and Minnie get ready for their perfect day in the country. There’s a hint of romance and playfulness to the words, as well as a sort of longing that gives the song its heart feeling. 

The melody does not drift too high into the musical register, nor does it go too low, meaning that it can be sung or hummed by virtually any listener. As to Berlin’s statement about open vowels, one only needs to look at the title “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” to see how effectively they embraced open and near-open vowels in the song’s lyrics. 

The lyrics are deceptively simple, hiding the deep craft that went into writing them. The process was enhanced by the particular musical backgrounds. As Elyse explained, “Chris is a pianist and a composer, and he thinks lots and lots about harmony and what makes a good melody. I’m a singer, so I’m thinking about the sing-ability of a song and the way the words work.”

Taken altogether, the song seems a perfect example of songwriting craft, adhering closely to the rules that Berlin laid out, which helps place it directly in the tradition of the Great American Songbook.

Though it is still a relatively young song, it’s easy to imagine that the piece will become a long-established part of the Disney canon, one that fans and music lovers alike will cherish for generations. 

Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf Scene

Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, once said, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” It’s a sentiment that might have been expressed by Walt Disney, the man most responsible for keeping so many classic, European fairy tales (albeit in sanitized form) in the collective consciousness during the 20th century. 

Peter and the Wolf, an animated short originally released as part of the 1946 anthology film Make Mine Music, seems to perfectly capture Mr. Gaiman’s statement. The story follows a young boy, Peter, who sets out to capture a dangerous wolf armed with nothing more than a pop gun. As in most fairy tales, he doesn’t undertake the journey alone. Joining him on the quest are a bird, a duck, and a cat. Against the odds, this motley crew manages to capture the wolf, surviving the dangers of the deep, dark woods. 

The music, written by Sergei Prokofiev, brilliantly uses melody to carry the story along, with each character being assigned a “theme” featuring specific instruments. This served not only a dramatic, narrative purpose but also helped educate young listeners about the various instruments in the orchestra. As Prokofiev later explained, “In Russia today there is a great stress on the musical education of children. One of my orchestral pieces (Peter and the Wolf) was an experiment. Children get an impression of several instruments of the orchestra just by hearing the piece performed.”

The character of Peter is represented by a jaunty section performed by the strings. Listening to it, you can picture Peter traipsing happily through the woods. A clarinet provides the slinky voice of the cat, while the waddling duck is depicted through an oboe. A flute is used for the bird, the airy sound flitting about from note to note, while the stodgy grandfather is represented by the bassoon. Then there is the wolf, whose menace is shown through a trio of French horns playing a minor progression.

Put together, the music moves the narration along, mirroring the rising and falling action of the story, alternating between moments of pastoral beauty, whimsy, and tension. This cinematic progression of the music was no doubt aided by the fact that Prokofiev had written scores for films. 

The blend of education and whimsy must have appealed strongly to Walt Disney, whose own creations often took a similar approach. To get a sense of this, one only needs to turn on one of the old Disneyland television series (with its segments like “Man in Flight” and “Man In Space”), the True Life Adventures Documentaries, and films like Donald In Mathmagic Land. 

Of course, the roots of Disney’s Peter and the Wolf go back further than any of those projects, with the earliest seeds being planted in 1938 when Prokofiev and Disney met in California. But that story cannot be properly told without a brief detour to learn a bit more about the composer.

The Prodigy

Young Sergei Prokofiev

Born April 23, 1891, Prokofiev was born into an agricultural family. His mother came from a family of serfs owned by the Sheremetev family. It is, perhaps, a curious twist of fate that this barbaric economic reality may have played a role in giving us the works of Prokofiev. It seems that the Sheremetev’s provided the children of serfs with education in theater and the arts. His mother Maria became a rather adept amateur pianist, in love with the works of Beethoven, Chopin, and Anton Rubinstein. 

As a very young child, Prokofiev would listen to his mother play the piano, enamored by the pieces she performed. He took quickly to the instrument, composing his first piano piece at the age of five. Four years later, he wrote his first opera. 

He was accepted into the conservatory at St. Petersburg, after a recommendation from the composer Glazunov. He attended the school from 1904-1914, but his natural talent led him to find the education boring. As a result, he developed a reputation as a somewhat arrogant student. During this time, he developed an active interest in musical innovation and took inspiration from artists in a number of fields (such as Pablo Picasso, various modernist Russian poets, the theatrical philosophy of Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the work of Sergei Diaghilev, who helped revolutionize Russian ballet). 

His early compositions were not particularly well received by the public. An article on Classic FM notes that he earned, “notoriety with a series of difficult works for his instrument, including his first two piano concertos. The second caused a scandal at its 1913 premiere. The audience reportedly left the hall with exclamations of “The cats on the roof make better music!”

By 1917, he’d written his first symphony, typically referred to as the Classical Symphony. Prokofiev stated that it was loosely based on the style of Joseph Haydn. Britannica notes that this was a creatively fertile period for the young composer. They note, “When Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917, Prokofiev was in the streets of Petrograd, expressing the joy of victory. As if inspired by feelings of social and national renewal, he wrote within one year an immense quantity of new music: he composed two sonatas, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, the Classical Symphony, and the choral work Seven, They Are Seven; he began the magnificent Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major; and he planned a new opera, The Love for Three Oranges…” the last of which would become his most successful operatic composition.

He then entered an extended period of time spent abroad (with the sanction of the Soviet government), traveling to locations like San Francisco, New York City, Paris, London, and even the Bavarian town of Ettal. It was during this time that he met and married singer, Carolina Codina, and completed The Love for Three Oranges. He also composed, among other things, an opera called The Fiery Angels, ballets like Le pas d’acier and The Prodigal Son, several symphonies, and other orchestral works 

A sense of homesickness brought him back to the Soviet Union. Once home, he again entered an incredibly fruitful period, composing his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and music for movies such as Lieutenant Kije. 

In 1936, he wrote “a symphonic fairy tale for children”, which would become beloved around the globe.

Peter and the Wolf

Album cover for Peter and the Wolf conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Natalya Sats, director of the Children’s Theater in Moscow, commissioned Prokofiev to produce a pedagogical piece that would educate children about the various parts of an orchestra. As noted in a 2004 essay by Brad Weismann, “The official culture of the day in the USSR was socialist realism, a style that featured idealistic depictions of the common man, depictions that were mandated, reviewed, critiqued, and censored by the central government. A useful work of art taught a moral lesson and reinforced Soviet values. For a libretto, Prokofiev started with a rhyming narrative by popular Soviet children’s writer Antonina Sakonskaya, about a Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of a Boy Scout) challenging an adult mired in reactionary, pre-Revolutionary thinking.” 

Prokofiev did not care for the text, instead providing his own, the story of a young boy who sets out to capture a wolf. Not merely a charming fairytale, the piece was also intended to instill Soviet-era virtues. A 2018 article from Classic FM relates, “Natalya Sats had another lesson she wanted to communicate: a lesson about the battle between youth and right-thinking (Peter) and the inflexible representatives of the old world (Grandfather) who did not understand the new Soviet ideology. Peter and the Wolf is a story about not being afraid, about taming nature and conquering external threats. The dark shadow in the woods beyond the fence perfectly evokes the paranoia of the Stalinist Regime, which wanted Russian citizens to believe that they “live in paradise, but there’s always an external enemy just beyond the fence, for which they must be on guard”.”

Of course, the message of a dark and unknown wilderness that poses unknown threats is hardly unique to Soviet propaganda. It’s been at the heart of fairy tales around the world. In many cases, used to reinforce the idea that danger awaits those who wander outside of the prescribed norms embodied by the values of the community, a rather different message than that provided through the story of Peter. In its own way, it does mirror some of the tales of man conquering nature, a sort of expansionist or colonialist concept that the wild can be subdued through progress. What that progress looks like, of course, is contingent on the values of the culture that creates the story. 

To the average Russian listener, the story must have conjured a wealth of contradictory emotions. As the BBC noted in an analysis of the piece, “It is outwardly “apolitical”, but all too clear in its message. The original Peter was to be a Pioneer, one of the dawn-facing youngsters who would go on to join the Komsomol – the Soviet youth organization in Stalin’s new Russia. But surely when children shuddered at the line “If a wolf should come out of the forest, then what would you do?” their parents must have looked anxiously at one another. There, in a single rhetorical question, was their day-to-day dilemma. Living in an isolated giant, with a fascist wolf just to the west, a circling group of hunters in the Western democracies, and a secret police who turned up so regularly to knock on doors that the majority of thinking Russians (and certainly Shostakovich after “Muddle Instead of Music”) kept a “little suitcase” packed and ready by the front door.”

Curiously, for a piece that was born of Soviet Russia, it was a trip to America and a meeting with a man who might be considered the quintessential capitalist, Walt Disney, that helped give Peter and the Wolf some of its lasting fame. 

The Magic of Disney

Scene from Disney's Peter and the Wolf

Walt Disney released the world’s first feature-length animated picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. It was a film that immediately grabbed the heart and imagination of Prokofiev, who was said to be so enamored of the film after his first viewing that he wanted to see it again the very next day. 

Peter and the Wolf had debuted a year before, and the following year found Prokofiev traveling to the United States and Los Angeles, where he would play the piece for Walt Disney. It’s a meeting that would later be recreated in the 4th-anniversary episode of Walt Disney’s Disneyland (with the role of Prokofiev performed by composer Ingolf Dahl, who closely resembled him).

As Walt narrates in the film, “I remember how his fingers flew over the keys of our battered old piano. How his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”

Sadly, World War II interfered with production. Disney became fully devoted to creating work for the war effort, such as training films, insignia for various crafts, and even propaganda-style cartoons. 

With the end of the conflict, Disney returned to making movies with the sole intent of entertaining, and Peter and the Wolf found itself included in Make Mine Music. The segment was narrated by Sterling Holloway (best known now as the voice of Winnie the Pooh, the Cheshire Cat, and The Jungle Book’s Kaa). As in the original, the piece starts with an introduction of the various themes, and the characters they represent, letting the listener and viewer know which instruments are associated with which character. 

The story remained generally faithful to Prokofiev’s original, with a few exceptions. Disney gave the duck, cat, and bird names, and also gave names to the hunters. In addition, Peter was already aware of a nearby wolf, whereas in Prokofiev’s piece Peter is simply warned of the possibility of a wolf by his grandfather. The inclusion of the young boy heading off to hunt the beast armed only with a pop gun was another invention not found in Prokofiev’s text. Disney also gave the tale a slightly happier ending. In the original, the duck is swallowed whole by the wolf, and the audience is told that if they listen closely they can still hear it (a pretext for repeating the duck’s theme at the end). In Disney’s version, the duck is thought dead, only to be discovered alive.

Sadly, by the time Disney made the film, Prokofiev was back in Russia and there is no indication that he was aware that the film was made. 

A Lasting Legacy

Sergei Prokofiev at Piano

By a cruel twist of fate, Prokofiev’s death occurred on the same day as that of Joseph Stalin. Crowds of people filled the streets to mourn the death of the dictator, rendering it impossible for Prokofiev’s body to be taken out of his home for burial. He remained there for three days.

Even the newspaper paid scant mention to his passing, with it being noted on page 116. The 115 pages prior to that were devoted to Stalin. As noted in a Houston Press article, “Adding further insult, no musicians could be found to play the great composer’s funeral. Every musician of any note was ordered to perform at Stalin’s funeral and the various surrounding festivities. Prokofiev’s family was reduced to playing a recording of the funeral march from his ballet Romeo and Juliet.”

Fortunately, time has a way of correcting these things. While the name of Joseph Stalin has become reviled around the globe, that of Prokofiev has only grown in stature. Composer Arthur Honegger declared him, “the greatest figure of contemporary music.” During his life, the great composer Shostakovich said of him,  “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.”

Eighty-six years after its original composition, Peter and the Wolf continues to delight and inspire audiences. Performers as diverse as Viola Davis, Alice Cooper, David Tennant, David Bowie, Leonard Bernstein, David Attenborough, Sir Peter Ustinov, Carol Channing, and Itzhak Perlman have performed the narration for the piece. Numerous adaptations have been made for film and television (including a Sesame Street interpretation with Elmo as Peter). 

After being released as part of Disney’s Make Mine Music, it was reissued as a stand-alone short and was later released on home video. The episode of Walt Disney’s Disneyland that featured the dramatization of Walt and Prokofiev’s meeting was included in the Walt Disney Treasures release “Your Host Walt Disney: TV Memories (1956-1965).”

Prokofiev once said, “In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it.” He would be happy to know that his music continues to live on, inspiring those who hear it, carrying them away into rhapsodies of beauty and imagination. 

He’s a Tramp: Peggy Lee’s Sultry, Swinging Masterpiece

Peggy Lee with Tramp and Peg

In the Westwood Village of Los Angeles, there is a cemetery that serves as the final resting place of some of the greatest talent the world has ever seen. Within the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary are the graves of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Buddy Rich, Natalie Wood, Frank Zappa, and numerous others. If you were to wander the grounds, you’d likely come across an elegant marble bench beside a fountain. The inscription on the bench reads “Miss Peggy Lee 1920-2002”. Above this are the words, “Music is my life’s breath”. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph.

In 1994, Frank Sinatra said of Peggy Lee, “Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm.” Duke Ellington was equally ardent in his assessment of her talent, stating, “If I’m the duke, man, Peggy Lee is the queen.”

As effusive as both were with the praise, it almost seems inadequate to what she accomplished over seven decades in the entertainment industry. She earned 13 Grammy nominations with one win (1969) and a Lifetime Achievement award in 1995, appeared in motion pictures like Pete Kelly’s Blues (for which she received an Academy Award nomination,) and wrote over 200 songs. She was the first female recipient of the Songwriters Guild of America’s Aggie and President Awards and her official biography notes, “she recorded more than 1,100 masters and over 50 original albums. Her total number of radio broadcast performances is over 800, and her television appearances surpass the 200-mark.” 

She collaborated with artists like Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, and Marian McPartland, while the list of those who have covered her compositions reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in 20th-century entertainment: Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Queen Latifah, Janelle Monáe, Nina Simone, Regina Spektor, and Sarah Vaughan, to name just a few. 

For the passionate Disney fan, she is best known as the co-writer and performer of the song ‘He’s a Tramp’ from the 1955 animated masterpiece Lady and the Tramp. It wasn’t the only piece that she contributed to the film, but it is the one that has become an unquestioned part of the Disney canon, standing alongside songs by such brilliant artists as Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Robert and Richard Sherman, and George Bruns.

From Norma to Peggy

Peggy Lee

Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, Lee was the sixth of seven children. Her mother died while Lee was young. Then, like a character in a Disney film, her father remarried a woman who would embody the “evil stepmother” role, physically and emotionally tormenting Lee until she fled home at age 17. The experience would later be captured in her song, “One Beating a Day” as part of a musical autobiography that debuted on Broadway in 1983. 

Her professional music career began at a radio station in North Dakota, where the program director dubbed her ‘Peggy Lee’. She then began performing around the country, including a stop in Palm Springs where she truly developed the vocal styling that would become her trademark, a quiet, husky delivery that could be simultaneously understated yet seductive, simple, and sultry all at the same time.  

It was a style that she adopted strategically, as a way to combat the noisiness of the crowds at her shows. She recalled, “I knew I couldn’t sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made, the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then, they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘softly with feeling’. The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience—softly, with feeling.”

During this period, Benny Goodman heard her and asked her to join his band. She recorded her first song, ‘Elmer’s Tune’ in 1941, and recorded a hit in 1942 with ‘Somebody Else is Taking My Place’.  In 1943, with Goodman, she released the song “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, a recording that became a smash hit and catapulted her to fame. 

That same year, she married guitarist Dave Barbour, and briefly retired from performing. Fortunately, it was a short-lived departure. Two years later she returned to the industry, collaborating with her husband on songs like “It’s a Good Day” and “Everything is Movin’ Too Fast”. 

David Barbour and Peggy Lee

Hits like “Fever”, “Big Spender”, “Golden Earrings” and “Is That All There Is?” followed, as Lee spent 24 years with Capitol Records before moving briefly to Decca, and other labels. Listening to her catalog today, it is clear that her belief that “The eternal struggle of art is to leave out all but the essentials” informed all of her performances. Each song feels spare, though not in a way that leaves them lacking. It’s as though she takes the listener to the precipice of every passion, be it love or despair, and leaves them teetering there, balancing on the sharp and refined edge of her voice. 

Lady and the Tramp

Peg and the Pound Dogs in Lady and the Tramp

In the midst of all of this success, Lee was contacted by Disney. According to her biography, “Walt Disney took notice of Peggy’s songwriting ability, and in 1953 he hired her to write all of the original lyrics for his classic animated film, Lady and the Tramp. Walt liked Lee’s song demos so much, he asked her to voice four of the characters, and even named one after her.”

Alongside Sonny Burke, she wrote:

  • He’s a Tramp
  • La La Lu
  • The Siamese Cat Song
  • Bella Notte (This is the Night)
  • Peace on Earth
  • What Is a Baby?

Of those numbers, she performed three (“He’s a Tramp”, “La La Lu”, and “The Siamese Cat Song”). She also provided the voices for the human character of Darling, the cats Si and Am, and the heartsick pound puppy Peg.

The song “He’s a Tramp” is the true show stopper, a number that seems as though it could have been a hit without the help of Disney. It begins with a slow, big band-style introduction that hearkens back to her days with Benny Goodman and would be at home in the old dime-a-dance halls. It then transitions into a gently swinging blues, Lee’s smoky voice accompanied by a jangly piano and jazzy bassline. The sound of dogs barking and whining in the background morphs into subtle harmonizing from the Mellomen (including a memorable bass line that goes “Boom-ba-boom ruff”).

Though the song has a tinge of melancholy and longing, as you’d expect from a blues number, it never becomes maudlin. Instead, it takes a playful approach, as though the lamentations are being given with a wink and a grin. Lee, as Peg, bemoans Tramp’s rambling nature while hinting that she wouldn’t change it. The result is a song that would be nominated for the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs” list of the greatest songs in cinematic history. It remains a perennial favorite of Disney fans around the world, rising to international attention again when performed by Janelle Monáe in Disney’s 2019 “live-action” adaptation of the movie. 

Sadly, the relationship between Lee and Disney would not have a fairytale ending. In 1987, the company released Lady and the Tramp on VHS. Lee believed that she was due performance and song royalties for the home releases, which Disney refused to pay. As a result, she sued them and was eventually awarded $2.3 million. 

In an interview, she stated, “I’m not being a saint, saying I don’t want the money — I want it…I think it’s shameful that artists can’t share financially from the success of their work. That’s the only way we can make our living.”

While it may not have been the perfect coda to her relationship with Disney, it was a landmark victory for artists’ rights. As explained on her official webpage, “Peggy Lee was quietly standing for this cause as early as the 1940s. In solidarity with the American Federation of Musicians’ 1948 record ban, she was among the vocalists under contract who refused to do any recording activity for the entire year…More than just an advocate, Lee was an artist willing to stand up for her craft. Facing an industry ruled by conventional corporate (and, all too often, mostly male-oriented) thinking, Lee fought multiple battles on behalf of not only her artistic vision but also the rights of fellow artists. The most famous of Lee’s legal cases was a lengthy court battle (1988-1992) regarding her work on Lady and the Tramp. This precedent-setting case pertaining to home video rights redefined how entertainment contracts are written.”

Life’s Breath

Looking back over the length of her career, it’s remarkable to note that Peggy Lee achieved her first charting single “I Got It Bad” in 1941, and her last, the posthumously released “Simalu” in 2017, 76 years later. It’s a body of work that continues to inspire, enticing listeners to revisit her songs over and over again. Thinking about brings us back to the simple inscription at her grave: “Music is my life’s breath”. 

But there’s more to the story. Music may have given her life, but she breathed life back into music. As Frank Sinatra would say, “Peg is just about the best friend a song ever had.” 

On the Corner of Main Street: Ragtime at Disney

Walt Disney once said, “Main Street, U.S.A. is America at the turn of the century–the crossroads of an era. The gas lamps and the electric lamp–the horse-drawn car and auto car. Main Street is everyone’s hometown–the heart line of America.” He also waxed poetic when saying, “For those of us who remember the carefree time it recreates, Main Street will bring back happy memories. For younger visitors, it is an adventure in turning back the calendar to the days of grandfather’s youth.”

Though he was born in Chicago, Walt moved to a small Missouri town called Marceline at the age of four. From 1906 to 1911, he called the quaint place home. Like Hannibal, Missouri for Mark Twain, Marceline became the foundation for much of Disney’s later work. Looking back, he said, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since—or are likely to in the future.” 

His idyllic memories provided the inspiration for Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland. It’s easy for a Guest to overlook its importance as they rush to the attractions in flashy locations like Tomorrowland or Adventureland. But it’s helpful to remember that Walt designed the park so that Main Street U.S.A was the first thing they encountered after entry.

Stepping onto Main Street, you’ll see a romantic view of America’s past. There is the old firehouse and the train station. There is a confectionary and town hall. Trolleys and horsedrawn carriages can be seen. The Magic Kingdom also contains a barbershop that looks so charming that you half expect Floyd the Barber to be inside chatting with Sheriff Andy.

While the east coast version draws from slightly different architectural influences, the guiding principle remains the same. Visitors are whisked back in time to an idealized view of America at the start of the 20th century. 

When exploring any Disney park, it helps to remember that Walt saw his creations through the eyes of a filmmaker. Areas were designed as though they were scenes in a movie, with the architecture and landscaping telling a story. The parks are designed for movement, guiding the Guests from scene to scene, as though they are literally stepping into a film and experiencing it firsthand.

This cinematic sensibility is maintained by a soundtrack. On Main Street U.S.A., that means that you’ll hear old standards from Tin Pan Alley, as well as a healthy dose of the fascinating rhythms found in ragtime. The latter is particularly apropos because while Tin Pan Alley was located in New York, ragtime’s roots trace back to the American heartland of Missouri.

A Fanfare for the 20th Century

Maple Leaf Rag Music

While it is always controversial to make such sweeping statements, there are some who consider ragtime to be America’s first truly unique form of music. But what, exactly, is ragtime? Historian Russell Lynes referred to it as, “a fanfare for the 20th century.” While that might give an idea of its historical import, it doesn’t do much to explain the music.

Ragtime is not quite jazz, though it is a decided precursor to the form. Neither is it classical.  To start with a decidedly academic explanation, ragtime is a “genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed of three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.”

An essay by Kathryn Neves notes,  “Like America itself, ragtime is a synthesis, a melting pot of styles and cultures. It is a combination of classical European music with various African styles. It’s easy to tell when you’re hearing ragtime: you’ll hear a “ragged” beat. That’s where it gets its name. Ragtime is full of syncopated rhythms, or notes played on the off beats. Taking the steady march music popularized by John Philip Sousa sometime earlier, and adding ragged African syncopation, creates a style rife with energy and excitement. A syncopated top melody above a steady beat is classic ragtime.”

Like most art forms, tracing its roots is a nebulous process. Certain forms of banjo playing can be seen as a progenitor to the style, as can the cakewalk. A history written for Carnegie Hall relates that “Itinerant African American musicians developed ragtime as a playing style of music spontaneously created while performing in brothels, saloons, bars, and other venues where they played after the Civil War.” Along the way, many traveled on the Mississippi River and found their way to Missouri. 

Tom Turpin, a pianist, and businessman from Savannah moved to St. Louis and opened a saloon that became a gathering place for musicians. In 1897, he published the song “Harlem Rag”, generally recognized as the first ragtime piece published by an African American. Despite this noteworthy accomplishment, Turpin would only publish another four rags, “The Bowery Buck” (1899), “A Ragtime Nightmare” (1900), “St. Louis Rag” (1903), and “The Buffalo Rag” (1904) respectively.

When looking at the history of the genre, three pianists command the most attention: Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb. Collectively, the group is typically referred to as “the big three”. While all three are deserving of a detailed examination, Joplin is undeniably the man most associated with the form. 

Scott Joplin

Born in Texarkana, Texas, Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894. While there he worked as a piano teacher. Shortly after, he began publishing music, specifically “Maple Leaf Rag”, one of ragtime’s most enduring hits, in 1899. Two years later, he moved to St. Louis, and while living there published songs like “The Entertainer”, which returned to public consciousness when it was included on the soundtrack for the 1973 film The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

As with many new musical genres, ragtime was simultaneously adored and reviled. Just as some would later deride blues as “devil music” and dismiss styles like jazz and rock and roll as noise somehow indicative of loose morals, there were many who objected to ragtime. The American Federation of Musicians in Denver referred to it as “musical rot”. A history of ragtime written for the Library of Congress noted that “at a 1902 meeting of the Lincoln Women’s Relief Corps, a motion was made by the Grand Army Encampment of Music chairman E. B. Hay, that the bands in the Corps’ “great parade be allowed to play ‘Ragtime,’ to break up the monotony of patriotic and martial airs…” The motion was met with great indignation, noting it “sacrilege to require Civil War veterans to march along Pennsylvania Avenue to ‘ragtime’ strains.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8/11/02, 11).”

Poet and civil rights activist James Wheldon Johnson, himself a ragtime pianist, wrote, “In spite of the bans which musicians and music teachers have placed on it, the people still demand and enjoy Ragtime.”

Joplin was well aware of the critics of ragtime and occupied himself with ensuring its legitimacy. To that end, he published ‘The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano’ to teach students the fundamentals of the form. He also published a ballet, ‘Rag Time Dance’, as well as the operas ‘A Guest of Honor’ and ‘Treemonisha’. 

Despite its massive popularity, ragtime fell from favor around 1917, giving way to the rise of jazz. While the genre never disappeared completely, its styling became anachronistic and it largely fell from the public imagination. Fortunately for fans, it was not forgotten by Disney.

Ragtime on Main Street

Rod Miller was not the first pianist to perform on Main Street (that honor goes to Rudy de la Mor), but he is unquestionably the man most associated with ragtime in Disneyland. He joined the company in 1969 and would go on to perform at the Coca-Cola Refreshment corner until his retirement in 2005.

A self-taught musician, Miller was unable to read music but learned to play by ear. Making his accomplishment even more remarkable? He broke his back as a child and had his spine fused. Doctors assumed he would never walk again, never mind sitting for hours on end at a piano.  Luckily for Disneyland Guests, he defied expectations, bringing magic to millions for years.

On the east coast, the ragtime tradition was begun by Randy Morris. At 19 years old, he performed at Disneyland and then decided to sign a three-month contract to play piano at Walt Disney World when it opened. Half a century later, he was still entertaining Guests at the Magic Kingdom. On October 1, 2021, he performed “Maple Leaf Rag” outside of Casey’s Corner on the park’s 50th anniversary, just like he did on opening day.

Randy Morris at Walt Disney World

Sitting down at the piano, he declared, “This is the first thing I played the first day. Let’s see if I can play it right. I mean, 50 years is a long time.” There was no need for concern. He promptly launched into a virtuosic performance of the song, to the delight of the audience. 

“When I was 19 years old and came out here, every performer at Walt Disney World was on a three-month contract,” Morris recalled. “And so, I came out here having played the previous summer at Disneyland thinking, well I could go there for three months and if I don’t like it I can come home. 50 years to the first day that Walt Disney World first opened, and I’m still here, still performing live. What I love most about the job is that we are playing for all kinds of people from all over the world and I love being able to make music and entertain everyone. ”

Jim Omohundro is another Main Street icon. Joining the company in 1983, he remained at the park for close to four decades. In 2013, Disney released an interview with Omohundro in honor of 30 years at the park. 

Jim Omohundro at the Magic Kingdom

“The piano’s really just a prop,” he said. “It’s no fun without the Guests. Every set is different because you don’t know what they’re going to respond to and you don’t know if they’re going to be willing to involve themself in the performance. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they cut up and dance and carry on. Sometimes they’re very shy. You see returning friends and you see their kids, and the grandkids, and you see new friends. It’s always different.” 

Another Magic Kingdom favorite, Mark Anderson, performed at various Disney parks for three decades before his death in January of 2022. Anderson joined the company in 1984, performing at the Disneyland Hotel six nights a week. Around 1986, he took a job performing at Tokyo Disneyland, where he remained for nine months before returning to the United States. In 1988, he took up his spot in the Magic Kingdom.

In 2020, when much of the park’s entertainment was gone due to COVID precautions, Anderson posted this video retrospective of his Disney career:

His obituary would note, “He dedicated his life to music and making magical memories for countless strangers, friends, and family alike.”

It’s lucky for us that he did. 

Recommended Listening:

The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin – Richard Dowling

Jospeh F. Lamb: The Complete Stark Rags (1908-1919) – Guido Nielsen

James Scott: The Complete Works (1903-1922) – Guido Nielsen 

The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake – Eubie Blake

Ragtime at the Magical Kingdoms – Chris Calabrese