A Pirate’s Life for Me: Composing a Disney Classic

Ah, to live the life of a pirate. Swashing buckles. Burying perfectly spendable treasure in the sand. Singing sea shanties. Losing teeth due to a bad case of scurvy. Living to the ripe old age of 40. What’s not to love?

The world of piracy has been romanticized and written about in fiction since the 18th century when Daniel Defoe published “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton” in 1719 and 1720 respectively. Since then, countless books, movies and more have been devoted to the subject of buccaneering. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Treasure Island” to Tim Powers’s “On Stranger Tides” the subject seems to be an endless source of inspiration, capturing the imagination of readers and writers around the world. While the reality of pirates may be far removed from their popular portrayal, they persist as a symbol of adventure and freedom. 

In the world of Disney parks, the classic attraction Pirates of the Caribbean has been entertaining Guests since March of 1967. Fifty-five years later, the attraction can be found in five parks worldwide (Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Shanghai Disneyland), and inspired one of the most successful film franchises of all time. 

It’s a wonder of Imagineering, one that remains the gold standard in themed entertainment for over half a century since its debut. Between the stunning audio-animatronics, the deeply atmospheric set pieces, and perfect balance of humor and thrills, it is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Of course, even with all of that, it’s hard to imagine that it would have had the enduring impact it has if not for its music. 

The song Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me) with music by George Bruns and lyrics by X. Atencio, is one of the most beloved numbers in the Disney canon. It’s a fact made all the more remarkable knowing that the lyricist had no previous experience in songwriting.

The Lyricist

X Atencio

Born in 1919, Xavier Atencio, known to his friends as X, joined Disney in 1938. An artist, he’d believed that working for the company was little more than a pipe dream until instructors encouraged him to submit his portfolio for review.

As he related to D23, “After I graduated high school in Colorado, I came out to California to go to school at the Chouinard Art Institute. At the end of a semester, a couple instructors told some of us to get our portfolios together and they would take them to the Studios to get critiques on our work. I had developed a character, Poncho, a Colorado Cowboy, and I had done a storyboard, but that was about it. And I thought, “I’ll never get a job over there.” So I went to Disney to see if I could get a summer job to make some money to go back to Art School. When I got there, George Drake, the fellow who recruited all us people, said, “Sit down here for a minute, I’ll be right with you.” And with that, three other guys from my classes came in and I thought, “There goes my job. I’ll never get a job now.” And George says, “We went through your portfolios and we like what you’ve done.” Would you be interested in coming to work for us?”

Upon acceptance, he was said to have run through his aunt’s house jubilantly shouting, “I got a job at Disney! I got a job at Disney!” 

He worked as an in-betweener on Pinnochio, and received his first screen credit for the Academy Award-winning short, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.” He was an assistant animator on “Fantasia” and also helped with sequences and titles for films like “Mary Poppins,” “Babes in Toyland,” and “The Parent Trap.”

In 1965, he joined WED Enterprises (now Imagineering) and helped create the Primeval World diorama, before working on Pirates of the Caribbean. According to Jason Surrel, in his book Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, “Walt was concerned about how Guests would react to some of the pirates’ more lecherous behavior. It was X who convinced him that a rousing sea shanty might be a good way to soften up these hardened criminals. X also felt that a song would help create a strong sense of continuity for the show.”

Describing his writing process, X said, “I just came up with some dialogue that the pirates might have said and set it to music. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum–that was a big part of the inspiration, that classic phrase.”

Despite coming up with the general concept, Atencio never believed that he would be selected to write the entire song, assuming that Walt would ask the Sherman Brothers to do the honors. He performed a bit of his idea for Walt, who promptly declared that he loved the song and wanted George Bruns to write the music. 

The Composer

George Bruns

From 1953 until 1976, George Bruns brought the brilliance of his craft to the world of Disney music, working on films like “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” “Johnny Tremain,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats” and more. During his career with the company, his compositions earned four Academy Award nominations and three Grammy Award nominations.

Born in 1914, Bruns began playing piano at the age of six, before learning the tuba and trombone. Over the course of his life, he would become proficient in 15 instruments. He studied music composition with Oregon pianist Dent Morey. 

He briefly attended school at Oregon State Agricultural College where he joined the ROTC and performed in the band, before dropping out to play music full time. Before joining Disney, he performed with a number of groups including the Jim Dericks Orchestra, Harry Owens’ Hawaiian Band, the Rose City Stompers, and the Castle Jazz Band. 

While working on the score for Sleeping Beauty, he was asked to fill a small gap of time in the Disneyland series about Davy Crockett. Working with lyricist Tom Blackburn, he composed “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which became a massive success.

Speaking of his work on Pirates of the Caribbean, Bruns said, “When I did ‘Yo Ho,’ we couldn’t have a beginning or an end because you didn’t know where you were going to come into the song in the ride. Each verse had to make some kind of sense, no matter when you heard it.”

As Jason Surrell notes, “…the music cues are in perfect length and synchronization to avoid an aural overload inside the attraction.”

With Atencio’s lyrics and Bruns’s music, the song was then recorded by the Mellomen, a ground consisting of Bill Cole, Bill Lee, Max Smith, and Thurl Ravenscroft (who also performed as one of the singing busts in the Haunted Mansion’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts”).

A Work of Genius

That the genius of Atencio and Bruns (who both have been named Disney Legends) should be so perfectly married, especially when Atencio had no previous experience as a songwriter, seems like the sort of fairytale story that might be told in a Disney film. It was a perfect aligning of stars.

Of Bruns, legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston said, “George Bruns worked equally well in either medium, writing ‘Davy Crockett’ for the live TV show at the same time he was adapting Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Sleeping Beauty to our animated version of the classic fairy tale. George was big and easy-going, but he worked very hard and produced a seemingly endless string of fresh melodies and haunting scores.”

For his part, Atencio credits Walt Disney with encouraging him to explore a talent he never even knew he possessed, stating, “I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”

Looking back, Atencio expressed delight with the song’s success, stating “…it’s nice to know it’s become so well known. I was down in Laguna Beach one time several years ago and there were some kids in a little dinghy out there on the water singing, ‘Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.’ That made me feel good.”

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