8 Favorite Musical Experiences in Walt Disney World

Note: A version of this article was previously published by Celebrations Press on March 13, 2022: 8 Favorite Musical Experiences in Walt Disney World – Celebrations Press

November is Thankful Season in the United States, a time to celebrate the things that make our lives better. The little sparks of wonder that light up the darkness, even if it’s only for a moment. It doesn’t matter how big or small, if it spreads joy, it deserves to be recognized. With that in mind, here are a few of the best musical experiences in Walt Disney World (past and present). Without them, life would be a little less magical.

Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room

1) Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing (Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Magic Kingdom)

The song “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” tends to get all the glory at this attraction, and not without good cause. It’s a classic composed by the legendary Sherman brothers, and it is imminently singable. Add to that the voice talents of Wally Boag, Fulton Burley, Ernie Newton, and Thurl Ravenscroft, and it’s clear why Guests love it so much.

That said, there’s just something perfect about “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing.” Originally written in 1932 by a group of songwriters, including Tolchard Evans, the piece is sung by the Showgirl Birds. Hosts Jose, Pierre, Fritz, and Michael join in as well. Maybe it’s the beauty of the Bird Mobile, which holds the cockatoos, or the fact that José does his best Bing Crosby impression during the piece, but it just holds a special place in our hearts. 

It's Tough To Be a Bug

2) Beauty and the Bees (It’s Tough to Be a Bug, Animal Kingdom)

You didn’t read that wrong, and it wasn’t a typo. While waiting to enter It’s Tough to Be a Bug, you’ll see a variety of posters advertising musicals like “A Cockroach Line,” “My Fair Ladybug,” and “Beauty and the Bees.” 

Make sure to listen while you’re in the area, and you’ll even notice music being performed by insects, specifically a chorus of bees performing their version of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s beautiful “Beauty and the Beast” (from the 1991 film of the same name). Once you hear it, the tune will be buzzing in your head all day.

Country Bear Jamboree

3) Heart, We Did All That We Could (The Country Bear Jamboree, Magic Kingdom)

While I will always consider “Blood on the Saddle” as performed by Big Al (above) to be the greatest musical moment of all time, I can’t deny the glitz and glamor of Teddi Barra.

The song she sings, “Heart, We Did All That We Could”, was a 1967 Billboard Country Top 20 hit in 1967, though it was Jean Shepherd singing it that time, instead of a Mae West-influenced bear who descends from the ceiling like a furry angel. While Shepherd’s performance is wonderful, she’s got nothing on the last of the Big Time Swingers. 

World of Motion

4) It’s Fun to Be Free (World of Motion, Epcot)

Long before Test Track, Guests of Walt Disney World could enjoy a slightly more leisurely journey in the World of Motion, a dark ride that carried Guests through the past, present, and future of transportation.

A ubiquitous part of the experience was the song “It’s Fun to Be Free”, a jaunty number composed by Buddy Baker and with lyrics by Xavier “X” Atencio. If that pair sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. They also wrote “Grim Grinning Ghosts” for the Haunted Mansion. Atencio is also responsible for “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)”, a song that he wrote with George Bruns. 

Na'vi River Journey

5) The Shaman’s Song (Na’vi River Journey, Animal Kingdom)

As the boats wind their way through the waters of Pandora on Na’vi River Journey, Guests find themselves surrounded by ethereal, glowing plants, wild animals, and beautiful, haunting music. The climax comes when the Shaman of Songs appears.

A truly stunning piece of Audio-Animatronics, she sings a profoundly gorgeous song with music by James Horner and Simon Frangien, featuring lyrics by Paul Frommer. The song is sung in Na’vi, but there’s no translation needed to convey the sense of wonder, awe, and reverence that it creates. 

Oga's Cantina

6) Cantina Song aka Mad About Mad About Me (Oga’s Cantina, Hollywood Studios)

Music has always been a key part of the Star Wars experience. From the opening credits to the menace of the Imperial March, the score becomes its own character throughout the films. So, it’s no surprise that it plays a huge role in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

One of the best examples comes from DJ R3X in Oga’s Cantina. If the little droid looks familiar, that’s because he used to be a pilot on Star Tours. These days, he spins tunes for tourists. While all of his music is great, his remix of the Cantina Song, originally performed by Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes is arguably the most fun. Just listen to a few bars and you’ll start tapping your feet.

Magic Journeys: Epcot

7) Making Memories (Magic Journeys, Epcot)

When Epcot opened in 1982, one of the original attractions was Magic Journeys, located in the Journey Into Imagination Pavilion. The 3D film allowed Guests to view the world through the eyes of a child, where everyday wonders were transformed into flights of fancy. 

Before the movie, there was a pre-show that included the song “Making Memories”, written by the Sherman Brothers. Because the attraction was sponsored by Kodak, the lyrics are all about preserving memories through photographs, and like other pieces composed by the Shermans, it’s incredibly singable.  

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith

8) Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith (Hollywood Studios)

This one feels a bit like cheating, but if we’re talking about great music at Disney parks, how can we not include the Bad Boys from Boston? Hit Aerosmith songs like “Sweet Emotion,” “Back in the Saddle,” “Walk This Way,” and others can be heard on the high-octane thrill-ride. They’re great to sing along to, that is if you can stop screaming as the coaster rockets along.

If I had to list one complaint about the whole experience, it would be that I still haven’t received those backstage passes that Steven Tyler promised me. What’s the holdup?

A Haunting Melody: Grim Grinning Ghosts

When the crypt doors creak

And the tombstones quake

Spooks come out for a singing wake

Happy haunts materialize

And begin to vocalize

Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize…

So begins the music to the single greatest theme park attraction ever built. The Haunted Mansion revolutionized what was possible in dark-ride entertainment, elevating it to an art form. While much of that success is due to the Imagineers’ unique ability to blend cutting-edge technology with centuries-old practical effects, it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of the attraction’s music.

Variations on the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (music by Buddy Baker and lyrics by Francis Xavier Atencio) play throughout the attraction. The style and presentation of the song vary depending on the room you are in, ranging from a slow, slightly off-key dirge in the foyer, and a waltz performed on the organ in the Grand Balloon, to the rollicking sing-along heard in the cemetery. It’s a constant presence, enhancing and tying the disparate narratives within the Haunted Mansion into a cohesive whole.

The Boy from Springfield

Hailing from Springfield, Missouri, Norman “Buddy” Baker started his music career early, beginning his piano studies at the age of four (though some articles say six). By 11, he’d picked up the trumpet. He began studying under E. W. Peter’s and Mickey Marcell at Drury College. He followed that musical passion into a doctorate from Southwest Baptist University. During this time, he began composing pieces for local nightclubs.

After relocating to California, Baker began composing music for radio programs. A 1960 article in the Springfield Daily News related his rise in the musical world, stating, “During Baker’s climb toward the summit of his chosen profession he has worked with personalities whose names most Springfieldians hear with a feeling of awe. He has conducted musical programs for Jack Benny and Bob Hope, arranged for such name bands as Bob Crosby and Stan Kenton…”

His transition into a Hollywood composer was in part fueled by his distaste for the rise of rock and roll, as he related, “I left the recording field six years ago because I couldn’t stand rock ‘n roll, which was taking over the business. About the only place left where one could write music was in the Hollywood studios.”

After making music for television programs like The Jack Benny Show, Baker was brought into Disney to assist George Bruns with music for the Davy Crockett series. As noted in his official D23 biography, “From there, Buddy went on to score more than 50 films, including Toby Tyler, The Gnome-Mobile, and The Fox and the Hound. He also scored such animated featurettes as the Oscar®-winning Donald in Mathmagic Land and the original three Winnie the Pooh films. As the Studio ventured into television, Buddy contributed to such series as Walt Disney Presents and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. He then moved into the theme park arena, beginning with the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, scoring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress.”

X Marks the Spot

I’ve written previously about Francies Xavier “X” Atencio and his composition of Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me). An animator turned Imagineer, Atencio was not musically trained and did not even suspect that he had any aptitude for music until he worked for Disney, once saying, “I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”

The child of Agapito and Ida Atencio, X grew up in the historically Mexican coal town of Walsenburg, Colorado. As noted by Creepy Kingdom, “Jesus M. Abeyta, X’s great-grandfather, first brought his family to nearby Trinidad, Colorado around 1864, according to an account signed by former state senator Jose Miguel Madrid. Before that, Abeyta was born in Abiquiú, New Mexico in 1820 while it still belonged to a nascent nation called Mexico. Jesus’ father and grandfather also hailed from New Mexico dating all the way back to 1757, a historical period that saw Abiquiú play host to the last of the major witchcraft trials that began centuries ago in Europe.”

His grandfather worked as Las Animas County Assessor, while his father became the editor of El Clarín, a Spanish-language newspaper. X originally planned to follow his father into the world of journalism, but decided to study art instead. When he received a job at Disney, it was celebrated at home with an article in the local newspaper which read, “This coveted position of honor and recognition of artistic ability is much treasured by young Atencio and both his grandparents and parents are very proud of his achievements and accomplishments in the artistic line.”

That a man who possessed no musical or lyrical training should go on to write songs is remarkable enough. The fact that he wrote two of the most popular songs in the company’s long history, lyrics which have worked their way into the popular imagination, is the sort of twist that seems only possible in the world of Disney. 

Despite his surprise when Walt Disney suggested he write the song (Atencio felt sure that the Shermans would be given the project), he attacked the project with gusto. As Bob Weiss, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, recalled, “That was how X worked — with an enthusiastic, collaborative attitude, along with a great sense of humor. His brilliant work continues to inspire Imagineers and bring joy to millions of guests every year.”

Speaking with the website Laughing Place, Atencio recalled that Dick Irvine and Marty Sklar brought him into the Haunted Mansion project, stating “They knew I had done Pirates, so they wanted me to move onto the next assignment. And there again, Claude Coats and Marc Davis had worked out the continuity of the ride, and everything like that, as they did on Pirates. My job was to figure out what was going to be said in it.”

Part of that script work involved creating the song Grim Grinning Ghosts, which he stated presented its own challenges.

“When Buddy and I did the music for this, the graveyard for instance, we had a cacophony of sound, because each little vignette had it’s own little music bit in it,” he said. “But it didn’t work, so finally Buddy had to put a general sound throughout. We got the Grim Grinning Ghosts theme working through the whole ride so we could concentrate on the things like the busts singing.”

As in Pirates of the Caribbean, they were also faced with striking a delicate balance between the macabre subject matter and Walt’s desire to keep the park family friendly. As Atencio related to D23, “We researched Japanese spooky stuff, and Walt didn’t want any blood and guts. In the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” I say, “Come out to socialize.” That was the key to it. They terrorize but their main point was to socialize. Walt bought that idea. That was the hook, the Disney angle. “Socialize” is the key word.”

Creepy creeps with eerie eyes start to shriek and harmonize…

Over half a century since Baker and Atencio composed their masterpiece, Guests are still tapping their feet to the morbid melody they created. It’s been featured in Disney fireworks shows, movies, and a variety of albums. It has even been covered by artists like Barenaked Ladies and featured in video games. A true classic in every sense of the word.

As Halloween approaches, let’s join our voices in a spooky verse:

If you would like to join our jamboree

There’s a simple rule that’s compulsory

Mortals pay a token fee

Rest in peace, the haunting’s free

So hurry back we would like your company

Life’s a Balloon: Remembering Dame Angela Lansbury

When October began, my plan was to fill the month with the history of spooky Disney songs. Then Dame Angela Lansbury died on October 11, and things changed. Next week, we’ll get back into the seasonal posts, but this week I wanted to spend a little time paying tribute to one of the true icons of stage and screen.

I have indistinct memories of encountering Lansbury as the indefatigable Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote as a child in the 80s, but I didn’t truly come to appreciate the genius and charm of the show until I was an adult. Instead, like most people my age, I first fell in love with her work in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. She provided the voice of Mrs. Potts, a resident of Beast’s castle who performed the show-stopping titular song. 

Tale as Old as Time

Mrs. Potts

As Kevin Fallon noted in his tribute in The Daily Beast, “To the child version of me, she was warmth personified. Her mumsy tenderness exuded from this singing, talking teapot, like the steam from a drink the character herself might pour. She created a Mrs. Potts that was on our level and familiar, but Lansbury brought with that an awe-inducing gravitas. She reassures Belle. She dotes on Chip. She calms the Beast. But make no mistake about the regality she’s earned: When Mrs. Potts starts singing the first bars to “Beauty and the Beast,” it was clear that she was ushering in something important.”

There are so many little moments in her performance that became unforgettable. Her delivery of the line, “Goodness sakes is that a spot?” in Be Our Guest is hilarious. Then there is the end of Something There when she patiently says to Chip, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” It’s so gentle and maternal that you can’t help but feel like everything is going to be okay. 

In hindsight, there’s something especially poignant about this, given that the lyrics to the songs were written by Howard Ashman in the final days before his death. Lansbury took his beautiful words and brought them to life, and without her performance it seems unlikely that the film would have made the history it did, becoming the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture. 

Lansbury performed Beauty and the Beast at the Academy Awards, alongside Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. As producer Don Hahn remembered, “We tried to guide voters to the title song. Celine Dion, who was unknown at the time, was drafted out of Canada to sing the song because we couldn’t afford a big singer. Actually, we were worried about her singing it alone, so we paired her with Peabo Bryson, who was a bigger star at the time. So that song was put front and center in the run-up to the awards, and that’s the one that won.”

With due respect to both Dion and Bryson, Lansbury’s voice and Ashman’s lyrics were all that the song needed, and it went on to win the award. It was a stunning accomplishment, which owed no small debt to the love that Lansbury had for her family. As noted by ClassicFM, Lansbury “considered her role in the Disney film, as a gift to her three grandchildren.”

Eglantine, Eglantine Oh How You’ll Shine…

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Beauty and the Beast was not Lansbury’s first performance in a Disney film. That came in the form of Miss Eglantine Price in the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

To be honest, I didn’t see this movie until college, when my then-girlfriend (and now wife) showed it to me. We watched a VHS copy in her bedroom, and I fell instantly in love with it. 

It is, without question, a strange film. Olivia Truffaut-Wong summed it up perfectly in her tribute to Lansbury when she wrote, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks is full of horrifying problems solved by silly solutions. Three orphans have to leave London to escape the war, but they’re taken in by a woman who takes witch classes by correspondence. They magically travel to the cartoon Isle of Naboombu only to find themselves lost underwater in the lagoon, but the fish there dress in three-piece suits and go clubbing, so it’s really not so bad. And the Nazis try to invade England but are beaten back by an apprentice witch on a broomstick and an invisible army of animated armor. To recap: In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lansbury plays a single, childless, singing-and-dancing, Nazi-fighting witch.”

While it never attained the widespread adoration and critical acclaim of Mary Poppins, it remains a delightful bit of whimsy with brilliant animation and endlessly singable songs written by the Sherman Brothers. 

In 1969, Lansbury wrote a note to producer Bill Wash to describe her excitement about the prospect of being in the film, stating, “I think the script has so many marvelous facets, character, humor, heart and an opportunity for rare inventiveness in so many areas . . . .  And the songs Dick and Bob have written for Eglantine are charming and just what was needed. So, all things being equal, do hope I’m ‘Your Girl’.”

It was a role that carried special emotional significance to Lansbury, who left London as a teenager to escape Nazi bombing. She later recalled, “Like Miss Price, I was in England when World War II broke out. My mother gave me a choice of being evacuated from London to a boarding school in the country or studying acting at home. I chose the latter without hesitation.”

In another of the many tributes written after her death, David Sims cited her performance in Bedknobs and Broomsticks as the definitive example of her genius for acting and charm as a performer. He wrote, “Released to mixed reviews, it was at best a modest success, but I watched it constantly on VHS as a child. Lansbury might’ve been one of the first actors I could immediately recognize. On rewatch, it’s certainly a strange hodgepodge of a children’s film, but it succeeds on the back of Lansbury’s unique charm: She’s steely but somehow warm, playing an oddball who’s nonetheless instantly lovable…part of what made Lansbury such an exquisite performer was her commitment to utter silliness…Eglantine Price is a surprisingly complex character for a kids’ film laden with special effects and animated sequences: She’s frosty and resistant to intimacy, but not written off as a sad spinster or a dotty loner. Lansbury makes her both funny and sympathetic, giving a fantastical, high-energy movie some needed emotional grounding.”

Life’s a Balloon

Mary Poppins Returns Balloon Lady

If I were to pick a single Lansbury performance that holds the greatest emotional resonance to me, it would have to be her brief cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. She appears in the film’s closing moments, portraying the Balloon Lady, who sells balloons in the park. 

Speaking of the role, Lansbury said, “There’s a lot more to Balloon Lady than just selling balloons. She’s a sort of a magical character and I think she knows what’s gone on and when she sends people up with a balloon she knows where they’re going, if they should go up or if they shouldn’t. So in that respect there’s something a little bit mysterious and interesting about her and that’s an appeal to me. A mystery is my business as you know.”

It’s impossible to watch without feeling emotional. When she tells the character of Michael Banks that he’s forgotten what it feels like to be a child, you get the sense that it is something that Lansbury never lost and that regaining it is as simple as reaching out and taking a balloon. 

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting swan song to her Disney career, and one that seems to encapsulate the warmth, grace, and charm that defined her entire career. As we all remember Dame Angela Lansbury, I’ll leave you with a few lines from the Mary Poppins Returns song Nowhere To Go But Up:

Life’s a balloon

That tumbles or rises

Depending on what is inside

Fill it with hope

And playful surprises

And oh, deary ducks

Then you’re in for a ride

Look inside the balloon

And if you hear a tune

There’s nowhere to go but up

Choose the secret we know

Before life makes us grow

There’s nowhere to go but up

If your selection feels right

Well then deary, hold tight

If you see your reflection

Your heart will take flight

If you pick the right string

Then your heart will take wing

And there’s nowhere to go but up…

A Midnight Jamboree with the Headless Horseman

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad

In the annals of American entertainment, few names have achieved the stature of Bing Crosby. His smooth, baritone voice always sounded effortless, bringing a casual charm to everything he sang. Over the course of his career, he had close to 400 charting singles, with approximately 41 achieving reaching number one. Four performances (White Christmas, Swinging on a Star, Pennies from Heaven, and Don’t Fence Me In) have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and by some estimates has sold as many as 500 million records. Fourteen of his songs were nominated for Academy Awards, including four wins.

But his talents didn’t end with music. Crosby appeared in 70 films, including the popular “Road To…” series with Bob Hope. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley in Going My Way, and was nominated for his reprisal of the role in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Despite such a prolific career, his only Disney credit came with the release of 1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, based upon The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Washington Irvin’s book The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Crosby provided the narration for the Sleepy Hollow segment, as well as voicing the characters of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.

In the film, Crosby performs the song Headless Horseman, which tells of the haunts that come to the village of  Sleepy Hollow on Halloween. The most frightening of all is the Headless Horseman, who has grown “tired of his flamin’ top” and has “got a yen to make a swap. So he rides one night each year to find a head in the Hollow here.”

The song itself was composed by the successful songwriting duo of Don Raye and Gene de Paul.

The Boogie Woogie Vaudeville Boy

A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Don Raye was born in Washington D.C. on March 16, 1909. He earned his chops touring Europe and the United States on the vaudeville circuit. As noted in his bio on Shazam, “After starting to write songs to liven up his act, Raye realized that his work was not only good enough to sell to others, but that this might constitute a better living than the vaudeville stage…In the mid-’30s, he was collaborating with Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, as well as bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, and had developed a swinging style as a songwriter. Among his early hits was “Down the Road a Piece,” a neat little amalgam of bluesy rhythm and vivid, catchy lyrics that was picked up by Freddie Slack and Will Bradley, and covered by everyone from Glenn Miller to Count Basie.”

Raye had a gift for incorporating things like slang into his lyrics, such as in his hit Beat Me Daddy, To the Eight Bar, first recorded by Will Bradley and His Orchestra, and then by the Andrews Sisters, both in 1940. The latter group would immortalize his biggest hit, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy a year later as part of the Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates.

He continued writing music for films, and began collaborating with Gene de Paul. 

Writing Singy Kind of Songs

A decade younger than Raye, Gene de Paul was born in New York City and trained as a classical pianist. Like Raye, he served in the United States Army during World War II. Later in his career, he wrote music for Sesame Street (such as A Singy Kind of Song), but would write a number of hits in the 1940s, including You Don’t Know What Love Is, and the Academy Award nominated Pig Foot Pete

In the 1950s, he teamed up with Johnny Mercer to write the music for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the duo would later combine their talents on Broadway for the musical L’il Abner. But before that, he was a frequent collaborator with Raye. 

In 1941, the pair wrote Cow Cow Boogie (Cuma-Ti-Yi-Yi-Ay) for Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, which would become a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots. They also wrote I’ll Remember April (featured in the same film) which became a hit for Chet Baker, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darrin, and others. 

In the early part of the decade, Disney began their work on a possible feature film of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which was interrupted by the outbreak of war. As Jim Korkis wrote on Cartoon Reasearch, “After the war in late 1947, the studio was still financially struggling so Walt decided to pair the story with another adaptation being developed, The Wind in the Willows, as his final package feature. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released October 5th, 1949.”

Raye and de Paul were brought on to write music for the film, having contributed to 1948’s Disney film So Dear to My Heart. Early on, voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft was considered to sing Headless Horseman, and Disney would later release a record of him performing the piece. However, Bing Crosby had been brought onto the project (along with Basil Rathbone for the Wind in the Willows segment) to help ensure the film’s financial success, and it was determined that for consistency Crosby would provide all of the vocal parts for the Sleepy Hollow segment (except for those of the female characters). 

Bingo from Bingville

Hailing from Tacoma, Washington,  Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr. earned his lifelong nickname as a child. A fan of the comicstrip The Bingville Bugle, Crosby was known to giggle uncontrollably while reading it, which lead a neighbor to dub him “Bingo from Bingville.” Eventually, it would be shortened to just “Bing,” a moniker which would become a household name worldwide. 

This story was later confirmed as fact, but was not the initial tale Bing told to a curious Joan Blondell in 1937. At the time, he related, “”Well, I’ll tell you, back in the knee-britches day, when I was a wee little tyke, a mere broth of a lad, as we say in Spokane, I used to totter around the streets, with a gun on each hip, my favorite after school pastime was a game known as “Cops and Robbers”, I didn’t care which side I was on, when a cop or robber came into view, I would haul out my trusty six-shooters, made of wood, and loudly exclaim bing! bing!, as my luckless victim fell clutching his side, I would shout bing! bing!, and I would let him have it again, and then as his friends came to his rescue, shooting as they came, I would shout bing! bing! bing! bing! bing! bing! bing! bing!” 

An enormous fan of singer and actor Al Jolson, Crosby first got an up close look at the legendary performer as a prop boy at the Auditorium Theater in Spokane, Washington. Years later, the two would perform together on a memorable duet of Irving Berlin’s classic Alexander’s Ragtime Band

He began performing in groups around Spokane, and according to a Mental Floss article, managed to become a huge success twice. They wrote, “…he and partner Al Rinker cut out for California to try to make it big in Hollywood in 1925. Rinker was the brother of jazz singer Mildred Bailey, who set him and Crosby up with some connections, and they were soon performing as part of a revue called The Syncopation Idea. Their talent was spotted there by the incredibly popular king of jazz, Paul Whiteman, who hired them. They had been in Los Angeles less than a year. When overnight success struck again for Crosby, it was after he decided to get serious as a solo act. He debuted on national radio September 2, 1931, and had 10 of the top 50 songs of that year.”

Volumes could be written about Crosby’s life and career (and indeed have been), but it is enough to note that there are few performers who match the stature and worldwide reach that his career achieved. The song White Christmas alone would have been enough to secure his place in the great pantheon of entertainment history. It’s to all of our benefit that he did so much more, including bringing life to one of Disney’s spookiest songs.

The year The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released, Crosby would release a 10” record of Headless Horseman. As we venture further into the October Country, I’ll leave you with the lyrics as Crosby performed them.

Now gather ’round

While I elucidate

On what happens outside when it gets late.

’Long about midnight

The ghosts and banshees

Get together for their nightly jamboree.

There’s ghosts with horns and saucer eyes

And some with fangs about this size,

Some short and fat,

Some tall and thin.

Some don’t even bother to wear their skin!

Ho ho! I’m tellin’ you, brother:

It’s a frightful sight

To see what goes on in the night!

When the spooks have a midnight jamboree,

They break it up with fiendish glee.

Ghosts are bad, but the one that’s cursed

Is the Headless Horseman: he’s the worst.

When he goes a-joggin’ ‘cross the land

Holdin’ a noggin in his hand,

Demons take one look and groan

And hit the road for parts unknown,

And there’s no wraith like a spook that’s spurned.

They don’t like him and he’s really burned!

He swears to the longest day he’s dead

That he’ll show them that he can get a head!

So close all the windows,

Lock the doors;

Unless you’re careful, he’ll get yours.

Don’t think he’ll hesitate a bit

’Cause he’ll clip your top if it’ll fit,

And he likes them little, likes them big,

Part in the middle or a wig,

Black or white or even red:

The Headless Horseman needs a head!

With a hip-hip and a clippity-clop,

He’s out lookin’ for a top to chop,

So don’t stop to figure out a plan:

You can’t reason with a headless man!

So after dark, you kids be good!

Stay at home, the way that you should,

‘Cause right outside, and waitin’ there,

Is the Headless Horseman. Beware!

Man, I’m gettin’ outta here!

The Best Disney Villain Songs Pt. 2

The Great Mouse Detective

Last week, we embarked upon a sinister journey to explore the best Disney villain songs ever written. In part one we looked at songs like Friends on the Other Side from The Princess and the Frog and Hellfire from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This week we’re venturing even further into the darkness with sinister snakes, manipulative mothers, and the Master of Menace himself, Vincent Price. 

Are you ready? I certainly hope so. Things are about to get wicked…

Poor Unfortunate Souls – The Little Mermaid

Physically inspired by the legendary drag artist Divine, and voiced by the late, great Pat Carroll, Ursula is a powerhouse, the sort of character you can’t take your eyes off of, even as she lures you to your doom. What’s worse? You find yourself smiling and laughing as she pulls you under. 

Her showstopping number Poor Unfortunate Souls was penned by one of the great musical teams of all time–Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Menken wrote the music, while Ashman penned the lyrics. Though it seems hard to believe now, the song was not originally part of the movie soundtrack. Instead, Ursula was to have performed a song called Silence is Golden. Fortunately for movie-goers everywhere, they transformed it into the number we know and love today. 

On the album Howard Sings Ashman, fans can hear a demo of Ashman performing the piece. It’s a true treat to hear his interpretation, and one can instantly recognize much of the snark and sass that Carroll later brought to the song. It’s no coincidence. Carroll stated in interviews that she asked Ashman to perform the song for her before she recorded it. She was so taken with many of his mannerisms that she added them to her interpretation (with Ashman’s happy blessing). 

The Mob Song – Beauty and the Beast

When people think of the villain song from Beauty and the Beast, they tend to mention the rollicking number Gaston. It’s an endlessly singable ditty that is always a crowd pleaser, whether sung by Jerri Corti and Richard White in the 1991 animated masterpiece, or by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in the 2017 live-action remake. It’s a personal favorite, but to my mind is not a truly villainous song. 

It’s primarily performed by LeFou as he tries to bolster Gaston’s spirits. We don’t see the full corruption inside of Gaston until the performance of The Mob Song. In it, he whips up the townsfolks’ fear, inciting violence against Beast and the other members of the castle. The song is even more chilling when we see how readily the people give themselves over to the hysteria, becoming willing to commit atrocities based on the absurdities Gaston has made them believe. 

Once again, this bit of musical mastery is the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. It was composed in the waning days of Ashman’s life. He would die from complications of AIDS eight months before the movie debuted. An article by D23, the official Disney Fan Club, relates a bit of history about how Ashman wrote the lyrics in those final days, stating, “Because of Ashman’s failing health, he opted to stay put near his doctors in his hometown of Fishkill, New York—about 60 miles north of New York City, meaning the rest of the creative team had to be flown in to work on his turf.” 

It’s hard not to see parallels between the lyrics Ashman wrote and the circumstances of his life. The D23 article goes on to relate “It was Howard who really shifted the focus to make it about the Beast,” explains Tom Schumacher, former president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, now president and producer for Disney Theatrical Group. “That the Beast has made a tragic mistake [and is] looking for redemption… that was constructed by a man who at that time in the AIDS crisis knew he wasn’t going to get out. “A lot of that found its way into the heart of this movie,” agrees Ashman’s collaborator, composer Alan Menken. “And I think in some ways that came out in lyrics.” After the film’s release, legendary CBS anchorman Dan Rather—in an article written for The Los Angeles Times, drew a comparison between the AIDS crisis and the cursed Beast’s knowledge that his chance to be human again was ticking away. Said Rather, “You feel the Beast’s loneliness and desperation a little more deeply. He’s just a guy trying as hard as he can to find a little meaning, a little love, a little beauty, while he’s still got a little life left.”

Seen in this light, The Mob Song becomes all the more unsettling given the national hysteria that surrounded the AIDS epidemic, when the public often treated patients like outcasts. It’s a tribute to his genius that Ashman was able to transform that pain into such beautiful art.

Mother Knows Best – Tangled

At the risk of making this a Menken-centric list, there’s simply no way to talk about great Disney villain songs without mentioning Mother Knows Best from Tangled. Alan Menken wrote the music, and multi-Tony nominee and Grammy Award winner Glenn Slater provided the lyrics. 

Speaking to William Bibbiani, Menken described the challenge of writing the song, saying, “…it needs to be established that she loves her mother and her mother loves her, and also you’re dealing with a subtle kind of emotional abuse that is clearly a much more serious and subtle element than you can give value to in a Disney song, a song for Disney. You have to sort of scale it back to her simply being a manipulative mother, and lighten it so that they can still have a mother/daughter relationship. If you think about it that’s a lot of modulating that has to happen with that.”

Of course, as brilliant as the song and lyrics are, it’s actress Donna Murphy who brings the piece to life. A two-time Tony winner (who has been nominated a total of five times), Murphy’s performance as the manipulative, self-centered Mother Gothel is almost reminiscent of Momma Rose from the musical Gypsy, and it comes out in Mother Knows Best as she tries to convince Rapunzel that everything she is doing is for her good. 

In an interview with SheKnows, Murphy said, “ I think that her humor helps, which when I first read the script I thought, “You know what? She is one of those people who cracks herself up.” I thought it was entertaining. I remember, Byron [Howard] and Nathan [Greno], the writer-directors, saying to me, “It’s a great image.” They said that they think she’s somebody who envisions herself periodically being hit with a spotlight. And then they literally did it in the Mother Knows Best number. I think she is an entertainer.”

Trust in Me (The Python’s Song) – The Jungle Book

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Man, I wish a demented, murderous version of Winnie-the-Pooh would sing me a lullaby with murderous undertones”? Of course, you have. Well, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what you get in Trust in Me from The Jungle Book.

The song is sung by the character of Kaa, the secondary antagonist of the film, whose voice was provided by Sterling Holloway, best known as the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat. 

Written by Richard and Robert Sherman, the piece was actually an adaptation of the song The Land of Sand, which was written for Mary Poppins, but never used. Bobbie Sherman, Robert Sherman’s son, notes on his webpage, “The Sherman Brothers had a monumental task ahead of them. They had to take a series of grim scenarios and somehow find a way to “Disney-fy” them. Somehow they had to make the songs sound happy and funny, even though the story dealt with the dark topic of a feral boy’s survival at the mercy of the often ruthless, cutthroat creatures of the jungle. What the Sherman Brothers came up with were five remarkable songs that both provide a happy (albeit sometimes haunting) tone. And yet, their songs delve far deeper into original Kipling text than anyone at the studio might have imagined possible.”

Holloway’s unmistakable voice helps make the piece feel slightly lighter than the lyrics would suggest. Though Kaa is attempting to lure the character of Mowgli to sleep so that he can eat him, it’s just not possible to be too intimidated by Pooh Bear. 

Goodbye So Soon – The Great Mouse Detective

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so it is with our little venture into the dark heart of Disney. However, we will leave you with one of the most under-appreciated films in the Disney canon. Released in 1986, The Great Mouse Detective is a clever homage to the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and his immortal Sherlock Holmes. 

Honestly, there are two songs that I could have picked for this final entry, as The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind is an utter delight. With music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Larry Grossman and Ellen Fitzhugh, the song celebrates the villainous Ratigan’s past crimes as he plots his next great venture. 

For sheer menace, however, I’ve got to go with Goodbye So Soon (also by Mancini, Grossman, and Fitzhugh). It plays as Basil (the Sherlock Holmes-like character) and his partner Dawson are about to be killed. The song itself is a study in contrasts. Backed by an upbeat horn section, the great Vincent Price (best known for his long career in gothic horror films) croons a song of victory as Basil and Dawson await a rather ghastly fate. 

Price’s performance is delightfully smug, peppered with a mock sense of regret, a flawless compliment to the lyrics and music. It’s such a perfect little song, that I can think of no better way to end our two-part journey than with the lyrics:

Goodbye so soon

And isn’t this a crime?

We know by now that time knows how to fly

So here’s goodbye so soon

You’ll find your separate way

With time so short I’ll say so long

And go

So soon

Goodbye

You followed me, I followed you

We were like each other’s shadows for a while

Now as you see, this game is through

So although it hurts, I’ll try to smile

As I say

Goodbye so soon

And isn’t this a crime?

We know by now that time knows how to fly

So here’s goodbye so soon

You’ll find your separate way

With time so short I’ll say so long

And go

So soon

Goodbye

The Best Disney Villain Songs Pt. 1

Dr. Facilier

The spooky season is upon us (though for some of us it lasts all year), and it’s time to immerse ourselves in all things creepy and macabre. Luckily, Disney abounds with haunting melodies and spine-tingling jingles from the silver screen to the Magic Kingdom.

To kick off our exploration of the October Country, we’re taking a look at some of the best Disney villain songs. As with any list of this nature, the selections are a bit arbitrary (in that it ultimately comes down to my own personal taste), but I’ve tried to use at least some logical criteria. In my selections, I chose songs performed by the villain, rather than those about a villain (such as the songs Cruella de Vil, and Gaston). I’ve also tried to choose songs that have shown enduring popularity and longevity, meaning that somewhat more obscure songs like We Won’t Be Happy ‘Til We Get It from Babes in Toyland or Mad Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone didn’t quite make the cut (though Mim’s inclusion in this year’s Oogie Boogie Bash at Disneyland California Adventure may make me rethink this stance).  

So, without further ado…let’s dive into the best Disney villain songs of all time.

Friends on the Other Side – The Princess and the Frog

We start things off in the Crescent City and the song Friends on the Other Side from The Princess and the Frog. The song is sung by Dr. Facilier and voiced by the inimitable Keith David.

Written by Randy Newman, one film critic described the number as, “a playfully sinister chorus, funeral brass and stop-and-start melodies that play the character like some twisted version of “Sportin’ Life” in Porgy and Bess.” It’s a fun comparison, and curious listeners should compare it to the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, written by George Gershwin and inspired by performers like Cab Calloway. 

Listening to the song feels a bit like exploring a dark, New Orleans alley (which I mean in the best way possible). The authentic feel of the Big Easy owes much to the years that composer Randy Newman spent in the city, which he came to love dearly. As he explained to NPR, “I was born in Los Angeles, but I went to New Orleans when I was, like, a week old. My mother is from there, her family is still there. I lived with her a few years when I was a baby, and I’d go back in the summers.”

The number has drawn some comparisons to The Little Mermaid’s showstopper Poor Unfortunate Souls, and the similarities are likely not coincidental as both films were directed by the team of John Musker and Ron Clements.

Hellfire – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

In the long history of Disney villains, there is perhaps none so viscerally frightening as Judge Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is, perhaps, because he is one of Disney’s most distinctly believable and human villains. While most are cartoonish or creatures from outlandish fantasy, Frollo feels all too real.

The character is a tribute to Victor Hugo’s particular genius. He had a knack for creating villains convinced of their own righteousness, as evidenced not just by Frollo, but by Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. 

Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (who is best known for work on Broadway hits like Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked), and brought to life by Tony Jay, the song Hellfire is shocking by Disney standards. It deals with subjects like lust, longing, and guilt, coupled with the fear of damnation. 

Adding to the ambiance, the number begins with a chorus of voices singing the Confiteor, a Catholic penitential prayer described as, “a general confession of sins; it is used in the Roman Rite at the beginning of Mass and on various other occasions as a preparation for the reception of some grace.”

Oogie Boogie’s Song – The Nightmare Before Christmas

In Friends on the Other Side, we made brief mention of the legendary singer and band leader Cab Calloway, best known for songs like Minnie the Moocher and Saint James Infirmary. In the 1930s, Calloway appeared in three Betty Boop cartoons (Minnie-the-Moocher, Snow-White, and The Old Man of the Mountain). The films, like many Max Fleischer cartoons, have a surreal, Heironymous Bosch quality to them, enhanced by Calloway’s musical performance.

Tim Burton, the author of The Nightmare Before Christmas, states that the character of Oogie Boogie was inspired by Calloway’s Betty Boop performances. The influence is most obvious in composer and lyricist Danny Elfman’s Oogie Boogie’s Song, which is performed by Broadway legend Ken Page (who originated the role of Ken in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Old Deuteronomy in Cats). In fact, when Santa Claus asks Oogie, “What are you going to do?” and he responds, “I’m gonna do the best I can,” the character is borrowing a direct quote from the cartoon short The Old Man of the Mountain.

Be Prepared – The Lion King

If one song could challenge Hellfire for the most sinister Disney song of all time, it would have to be Be Prepared from The Lion King. After all, the visuals accompanying it were literally inspired by the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. As noted in Entertainment Weekly, the song, “grew out of one sketch by story staffer Jorgen Klubien that pictured Scar as Hitler. The directors ran with the concept and worked up a ‘Triumph of the Will’-style mock-Nuremberg rally.” Even the lighting in the scene was inspired by Nazis, made to resemble the “Cathedral of Light” used at their rallies. Add this to the fact that the song is Scar plotting the assassination of his brother, in a plot inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and you have a truly bone-chilling number. 

The music and lyrics were penned by the team of Elton John and Tim Rice and primarily performed by Jeremy Irons (who also provided a past narration for Spaceship Earth). However, voice actor Jim Cummings also provided some of the vocals on the track. It seems he was asked to step in and sing the last verse of the song after Irons developed voice problems. 

Shiny – Moana

Alas, David Bowie was never a Disney villain. Nor did he appear in any Disney films (at least not directly…he performed in a Miramax film while it was still a Disney subsidiary and a Touchstone Pictures film). This is an immeasurable loss to all of us who adored his performance as The Goblin King in Jim Henson’s masterpiece Labyrinth, and who would have loved to see what he could do for the House of Mouse. 

We can take some small comfort in the fact that his spirit is infused in one Disney villain. The creators of Moana have made no secret of the fact that the one and only Ziggy Stardust inspired the character of Tamatoa. Or maybe it was the Thin White Duke. Or Aladdin Sane. Or one of the other myriad characters David Bowie brought to the stage. 

And in the absence of David Bowie, it only makes sense that actor and musician Jemaine Clement was asked to step in and perform Tamatoa’s song Shiny. Why? Well, as Clement’s old comedy folk music duo (and HBO sitcom) taught us, he does one heck of a Bowie impression

Add in the spectacular genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics and you have a recipe for a truly unforgettable song, which is as mesmerizing as it is menacing.

Join us next week as we dive into five more classic Disney villain songs!

The Disney Book: A Classical Celebration

Disney music gets dressed up for a night at the concert hall in superstar pianist Lang Lang’s new album The Disney Book. The deluxe version of the record, released on September 16, 2022, by the Deutsche Grammophone label in collaboration with Disney Music Group, features 28 tracks that span the breadth of music from the Disney canon. It is a joyous collection whose release coincides perfectly with the centenary celebration of the Walt Disney Company.

The album’s first single, Feed the Birds (originally composed by the Sherman Brothers for Mary Poppins) is a delicate and lovely interpretation of the song that Walt Disney declared his favorite. A music video for the song was released, which was shared on the official Disney blog on June 23, 2022. Disney described the filming process, stating, “Captured as dawn broke over the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle at the Disneyland Park, the music video captures the magic of Lang Lang’s album and of Walt Disney’s legacy.”

Another highlight is Lang Lang’s collaboration with Academy Award-winning artist Jon Batiste on the song It’s All Right from Soul. The result is something akin to a piece that George Gershwin might have composed, combining the vibrant world of jazz with the sensibilities of classical. 

Speaking of the partnership, Lang Lang stated, “…we [got] my new great friend Jon Batiste to play New Orleans-style jazz on top of my classical and jazz style [in ‘It’s All Right.’] So we try to have this mix with classical jazz and New Orleans jazz.”

Some of the world’s great arrangers were enlisted to work on the album as well, with Sir Stephen Hough, Natalie Tenenbaum, and Randy Kerber all offering contributions. In an article by Deutsche Grammophone, Sir Stephen Hough stated, “I’ve been a huge admirer of Lang Lang for years and I was delighted to be asked to arrange some Disney songs for him. I loved the challenge of transforming these popular songs, beloved by generations of children and parents, into solo piano pieces, rooted in the classical tradition of the great transcribers of the past.”

Other artists contributing to the album include world-renowned singer Andrea Bocelli, Columbian singer/songwriter Sebastian Yatra, guitarist Miloš, Chinese erhu player Guo Gan, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Robert Ziegler. 

Featuring a good balance between classic Disney songs and beloved modern hits, the album does a good job of carrying the listener through the history of Disney song. Including numbers like Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, Whistle While You Work from Snow White, We Don’t Talk About Bruno from Encanto, Let It Go from Frozen, Baby Mine from Dumbo, and Remember Me from Pixar’s Coco. Though each will be instantly recognizable, they’ve been reworked and re-imagined to make them feel appropriately classical. It’s fascinating to identify these influences. For instance, a keen ear will likely note that Baby Mine clearly takes inspiration from the classical Impressionism of artists like Claude Debussy. 

The song When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinnochio feels like the album’s emotional core. Lang Lang is joined on the track by fellow virtuoso (and spouse) Gina Alice. In an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, Lang Lang states that the song was recorded with their 20-month-old son in mind, saying, “We wanted to do this piece particularly for our son. So for the baby, we want to give him some smooth music to hug him, kiss him.” 

It seems that this is an album that Lang Lang was destined to record. Animation spurred his interest in classical music, after a viewing of a Tom and Jerry cartoon titled The Cat Concerto caught his imagination. In an interview with CNBC’s Tania Brier, he recalled how the characters,  “play the (Franz) Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody Number II and unfortunately I didn’t know who Liszt was at that time, but I certainly knew that Tom did a great job, and Jerry kind of cheated.”

His first encounter with Disney came in 1995 at the age of 13 when he visited Tokyo Disneyland. In the Yahoo! Entertainment article, he stated, “My first Disney memory is going to Tokyo when I was 13 years old, in 1995. After I won the competition in Japan. Because that time in China, they have no Disneyland. So that was my first time in Disneyland, which was in Tokyo. It was like the happiest day in my life. And it’s amazing that in 2015, when Disneyland opened in Shanghai, I played the opening. Because it was like, ‘I had to do this. This is so exciting.'”

Speaking with Deutsche Grammophone, he elaborated, “…it was the first time I had heard ‘It’s a Small World’ and the melody stayed with me all day – and long afterwards.”

In addition, Lang Lang credits the jazz heard in early Disney shorts and the impact of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer’s music from The Lion King as spurring his passion for Disney music. 

The album also represents Lang Lang’s commitment to spreading music education to young listeners. When performing for school-age audiences, he found that the children consistently requested that he play Disney songs. He explains, “So this is another reason why we’re doing it. I think it’s something that’s good for us — for the classical music world, but also good for the kids. When they learn something purely instrumental, they want to hear something which connects to their life. We’d like to make sure that the kids will not be afraid of classical music.”

Walt Disney once said, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” His particular genius was his ability to marry the two, so that the audience was carried along toward education without even realizing it. Lang Lang’s album embodies Walt’s ideal, helping us better understand classical music by embracing songs that are part of our collective memory, that live in our hearts, memory, and imagination. 

Lavender’s Blue: From the Nursery to Disney

Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger once said of folk music that it, “helps reinforce your sense of history. An old song makes you think of times gone by.” In a way, music is magic. It can transport you to a different time and place with a few simple notes.  

As much as Walt Disney believed in progress, he also had a strong streak of nostalgia, a wistful romanticizing of the turn of the century world he grew up in. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 1949 feature So Dear to My Heart. Based on Sterling North’s novel Midnight and Jeremiah, the film is set in Indiana and tells the story of a young boy raising a black-wool lamb.

A midwestern boy himself, Walt was particularly attached to the movie, stating, “So Dear was especially close to me. Why that’s the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri.”  He was so enamored of the film, that he built a gorgeous model of “Granny Kincaid’s cabin,” which he intended to use as part of a traveling exhibit called Disneylandia. Though the idea never came to fruition, it served as part of the early inspiration for Disneyland. That influence can also be found in visiting Disneyland’s Frontierland train station, which was patterned after the station in the film. 

While the movie was not a commercial success and has fallen into relative obscurity, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for “Best Song.” Credited to Eliot Daniel and Larry Morley, and performed by Burl Ives, the song, Lavender’s Blue (Dilly Dilly), was actually an adaptation of a centuries-old folk melody. It is performed twice in the movie and helps create the cozy, front porch feeling that flows throughout the film.

Tracing the origins of a folk song is never an easy task. They’re elusive by their very nature, passed from person to person, picking up and losing lyrics, incorporating bits and pieces of other melodies together. They’re a bit like the river in Disney’s Pocahontas. You never step in the same one twice. That’s especially true of Lavender’s Blue, which underwent a fairly substantial transformation from its earliest days.

The Story of a Song

Lavender’s Blue appears to date back to the 17th century and a song titled “Diddle, Diddle (or The Kind, Country Lovers).” However, even that only gives us an inkling of the song’s history, as notes from the published broadside instruct performers to sing the song to the tune of “Lavender’s Green,” implying the existence of an older melody that likely would have been well known to all performers at the time.

The lyrics in this early incarnation are a far cry from the sweet and tender love song performed by Ives in So Dear to My Heart. Instead, the lyrics are a bawdy celebration of the narrator’s desire for a young maiden who will get drunk with him and keep his bed warm.

The book “Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales,” by John Russell Smith notes a version of the song titled “Twelfth Night,” explaining, “The following verses are said to be in some way or other connected with the amusements of this festival. They refer probably to the choosing the king and the queen on Twelfth-night:

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen:
Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
‘Twas mine own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.
Call up your men, dilly dilly, set them to work,
Some with a rake, dilly dilly, some with a fork;
Some to make hay, dilly dilly, some to thresh corn,
Whilst you and I, dilly dilly, keep ourselves warm.
If you should die, dilly dilly, as it may hap,
You shall be buried, dilly dilly, under the tap;
Who told you so, dilly dilly, pray tell me why?
That you might drink, dilly dilly, when you are dry.”

The song was also published in the 1805 book “Songs For the Nursery,” which was penned by an anonymous author (theorized to be Eliza Fenwick). 

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by Peter and Iona Opie notes that the song was, “remembered almost solely in the nursery until 1948-49 when a dance version…popularly swept America and Britain.” Though not stated expressly in the book, this time frame corresponds with the release of the Disney film. 

Songwriter and lyricist Eliot Daniel lent his talents to adapting the melody for Disney. Born in 1908, Daniel had a long career composing music for the movies, though he would become best known for writing the theme song for I Love Lucy. His work with Disney included contributions to Make Mine Music, Fun & Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Magical World of Disney, and Little Toot. 

The lyrics for Disney’s version of Lavender’s Blue were provided by the remarkable Larry Morey. His resume includes contributions to animated shorts like Ferdinand the Bull, The Grasshopper and the Ants, and The Wise Little Hen. However, he is best remembered for his work on films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (including songs like “Heigh Ho,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and “I’m Wishing.”), The Reluctant Dragon, and Bambi.

His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the difficulty of his early life. His Wikipedia biography notes that he was born with a skeletal abnormality and that, “His left arm was not fully formed and caused his mother to reject him at birth, saying “he would never amount to anything.” She abandoned him to the care of his father, George T. Morey, a traveling musical ventriloquist. When he was only six years old, his father left him in a boarding house in Los Angeles and went on the road performing throughout California.”

America’s Favorite Balladeer

Modern audiences are most likely to associate Ives with his depiction of Sam the Snowman in the 1964 holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. However, he had a career that spanned multiple mediums, with appearances in movies, on Broadway, on record, and on the radio with his program The Wayfaring Stranger.

One of six children, Ives’ first public musical performance came at the age of 4 when he sang at a soldiers’ reunion. His broad knowledge of traditional song was learned at the knee of his mother, Cordelia White, and his grandmother, Kate White. He wrote of his early years, “The rich Illinois land doesn’t stretch down to Jasper and except for the bottom land you can’t raise anything but nubbins there. . . . From the time I was born until I was school age I remember we lived on four different farms. There were seven of us children, three girls and four boys, and we always did a good bit of singing in the family.”

Speaking of his grandmother, he wrote, “To me her ballads brought a world shining with excitement and color; they brought people — like Barbara Allen dying of love and a lone lover sitting on top of a snow-covered mountain. I had never seen a mountain on the prairies of Illinois. Pictures, romance, passion, bravery, gallantry, sorrow, joy — she sang a storybook of tales culled through centuries and tempered by time into beautiful poetry. Kate loved the ballads and loved to sing them for the boys and girls, and that was her religion.”

He learned the banjo as a teenager but did not intend to pursue a career in music, instead planning to become a football coach. Those plans dropped by the wayside when he dropped out of school. In his autobiography, also titled The Wayfaring Stranger, he notes that he was listening to a lecture on Beowolf when he realized that he no longer wanted to be in school. He stood up in the middle of the class and walked out, slamming the door so hard that the glass in the door window shattered.

From there, he set off on the road as an itinerant performer, even landing himself in jail while traveling through Utah. It seems that he was accused of vagrancy, and for performing the folk song “The Foggy, Foggy Dew,” which authorities deemed “bawdy.”  His wandering eventually led him back to higher education, as he studied at Julliard School before breaking into Broadway and Radio.

A biography on the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) webpage notes, “From the 1940s through 1960, Burl Ives was considered America’s most authoritative interpreter of American folk songs. A mainstream figure (better known than Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie), his penetrating, tenor voice with its unique timbre was recognized by millions.”

He would make “The Blue Tail Fly” and the gorgeous, haunting spiritual “The Wayfaring Stranger” his signature songs. 

In 1946, he made his film debut in the movie Smoky. Three years later, he appeared in Disney’s So Dear to My Heart. Controversy would soon follow Ives when, in 1950, he was identified in the pamphlet Red Channels and blacklisted as a Communist. Fearful of losing his livelihood, Ives would testify before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee two years later. Accounts vary as to the number of names Ives provided to the committee, with friends stating it was no more than 4, while, “the popular impression was that he had named many more. Sing Out! Magazine (in its 1995 obituary of Ives) wrote that he “named more than 110 people he knew to have left-wing or communist leanings. Many of these names were previously unknown to the committee.” Ed Cray’s biography of Woody Guthrie, Rambling Man, (2004) says that “according to newspaper accounts” he named “hundreds.”

The testimony led to years of acrimony between Ives and the folk community, including artists like Pete Seeger and others who continued to be blacklisted after Ives’ name was removed from the list. Despite the conflict within the folk community, Ives’ career continued to flourish, appearing as “Big Daddy” in the movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and even winning an Academy Award for his role in the film Ensign Pulver. He would also work with Disney again in the 1963 film Summer Magic and later provided the voice for Sam Eagle in the America Sings show in Disneyland.

As a sort of coda to Ives’ story, Seeger and Ives were reunited and seemed to bury the hatchet some 41 years after the HUAC testimony. A story in the Meacham Journal notes, “Forty-one years later on May 17, 1993 — 28 years ago today — the bitterness ended.

The then ailing Ives, 84, and Pete Seeger, 74, were reunited in a benefit concert in New York City. They sang “Blue Tail Fly” together. Following Ives’ death in 1995, Seeger praised his tenor voice and the role it played in keeping so many important American songs alive.”

Raise the Ceiling a Few Feet Higher

Studying music is a curious thing. Pull at a single strand and you find that it’s connected to an almost infinite number of others. From one song, like Lavender’s Blue, we stretch our reach back over centuries. We follow that thread into the nursery and find mothers singing lullabies to their children. Pull a little harder and we find ourselves learning the history of entertainment in the 20th century, as well as looking at the pain, fear, and, darkness looming in our past in the form of things like the Red Scare. We find passion, betrayal, fear, and even, perhaps unlikeliest of all, reconciliation. 

It brings to mind another quote by Seeger, when he said, “And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

Disney and Jazz: A Celebration

 (A version of this article previously appeared on the Celebrations Magazine Blog)

The great Wynton Marsalis once said, “Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.” 

In a way, the quote reminds me of Walt Disney’s speech on the opening of Disneyland. He said, “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” While he was describing his theme park, he could have been discussing jazz, an art born of joy and suffering, struggle and passion, a marriage of ideals that recognize that we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but we can see it in the distance and will continue striving toward it. 

The world of Disney has been blessed by the sound of jazz, from it’s earliest cartoons to films like Pixar’s Soul. To celebrate the relationship, let’s take a look at a few of the best examples of times that Disney and Jazz intersected.

Soul exhibit in Epcot

Pixar’s Soul

In 2020, Disney and Pixar released the animated film Soul, directed by Peter Docter and starring Jamie Foxx. The movie, which would go on to win two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, tells the story of jazz pianist Joe Gardner. 

While the story is a work of fiction, Gardner was inspired by a real-life music teacher from Queens named Dr. Peter Archer. 

The score was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with original jazz numbers contributed by Jon Batiste – a Grammy award-winning pianist and the bandleader on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. 

To ensure accuracy the film team consulted with legendary musicians like Herbie Hancock and even studied Batiste’s hands while playing piano as a reference for animating the sequences of Gardner performing. 

Following the release of the film, an exhibit titled “The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure” was opened in Epcot, providing Guests a view of jazz history, along with artifacts such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Charlie Parker’s saxophone, and Gene Krupa’s drum sticks.

Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

From 1960 to 1970, Disneyland held an event known as ‘Dixieland at Disneyland.’ It featured live music and a Mardi Gras parade. The great Louis Armstrong performed at the event, and also appeared in the 1962 World of Color Episode “Disneyland After Dark.” You can still find recordings of it online, and it’s a treat to see Armstrong performing aboard the Mark Twain riverboat alongside singer Monette Moore.

In 1968, Armstrong released the album “Disney Songs the Satchmo Way”. In a 2021 article by Indiana Public Media, it was noted that this album was personally commissioned by Walt Disney. The record included performances of songs like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “The Bare Necessities.” 

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins

In the history of jazz, there are few figures who can stand side by side with a performer like Louis Armstrong. The great Duke Ellington is among their number, a true titan who revolutionized music, and whose influence can still be felt nearly half a century after his passing. 

The composer of such standards as “Take the A Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Ellington released “Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins” in 1964, featuring arrangements of the classic Sherman Brothers compositions. 

A review in the Jazz Times raves, “Any Ellington fan is justifiably excited by the maestro’s own writing, but it would be a crime to neglect his gift for making other composers’ work his own.”

Saludos Amigos

The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos

The “Soul of Jazz” exhibit in Epcot featured information on several key cities in the evolution of jazz, including New York City, New Orleans, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. In an article about the display, Disney Public Relations Manager Sarah Domenech wrote, “Another pivotal city in the development of jazz, New Orleans, was heavily influenced by its Latin neighbors to the south, including Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. From this cross-cultural exchange emerged a colorful style of jazz music, with distinctly Latin rhythms. In the jazz world, this sound is lovingly known as ‘the Spanish Tinge.’ ”

Disney gave the world a joyous celebration of this musical tradition in their films The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. The song “Baia” (originally titled Na Baixa do Sapatiero), a samba number, was performed in The Three Caballeros and “Aquerelo do Brasil” appeared in Saludos Amigos. The latter would become a smash hit, performed by musicians like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Django Reinhardt. The Mexican bolero “Solamente Una Vez” also appeared in The Three Caballeros and would go on to become a success in English as “You Belong to My Heart,” performed by artists like Nat King Cole. 

Lady and the Tramp

He’s A Tramp

For over seven decades, Peggy Lee entertained audiences as a jazz vocalist and songwriter. She sang with Benny Goodman’s big band and had hits with songs like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “Fever.” Over the course of her career, she recorded over 1,000 songs and composed over 270.

For Disney fans, she is best known as the singer and co-writer of the song “He’s a Tramp,” the slinky jazz number performed by the dog Peg in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. Lee also co-wrote the other originals songs featured in the movie, such as “Bella Notte.” 

Firehouse Five Plus Two

The Firehouse Five Plus Two

Dixieland jazz began in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, blending ragtime and Sicilian influences into a toe-tapping explosion of musical joy.

The Firehouse Five Plus Two was a Dixieland band composed of Disney animators Ward Kimball, Harper Goff, Frank Thomas, and others. It seems that Kimball came up with the idea while chatting with other members of the animation department about their shared love of jazz. 

Over the years, they recorded numerous albums and appeared in Disney television specials like “One Hour in Wonderland.” Animated versions of the band can even be spotted in the 1953 Goofy cartoon How to Dance. 

Walt himself was a fan of the group and had them perform regularly at company events and at Disneyland.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog

Set in the birthplace and cradle of jazz, The Princess and the Frog is a gorgeous celebration of the Big Easy, music, good food, and the gumbo melting pot that is Louisiana culture. The film’s opening number, “Down In New Orleans,” was performed by legendary pianist and New Orleans native Dr. John. The character of Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator, sings about his love of musicians like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet, dreaming of the day he can play in a band like the “big boys.” 

The movie also pays tribute to other musical forms, such as zydeco (in the song “Gonna Take You There”) and gospel (“Dig a Little Deeper”), which have influenced and been influenced by jazz music. 

There are numerous other examples of how Disney has helped celebrate the wonder that is jazz, from the hip, swinging music of The Aristocats, to the elegance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue featured in Fantasia 2000. It can even be found in Disney’s earliest days, through animated shorts like 1929’s Mickey Mouse short The Jazz Fool. It’s a rich relationship that is a gift to fans of music, animation, and the Disney parks.   

Blood on the Saddle: The Big Al Story

Big Al

There are certain moments that will live forever in the history of popular music—the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and Freddy Mercury at Live Aid spring to mind. The moment the spotlight first struck Big Al on the stage of the Country Bear Jamboree also belongs on that list. 

Ok. Obviously, I’m being a bit silly. Big Al’s debut was a much bigger deal than all of that other nonsense. It marked the appearance of a singular talent who continues to entertain and delight countless fans over half a century after he burst upon the scene.

Critics may scoff that he only sings one song and that his guitar is grossly out of tune during the performance, but true connoisseurs of music recognize that this is part of his greatness, and only lends to his charm. 

Adding to his intrigue, his signature song, “Blood on the Saddle,” comes complete with a bit of mystery. Traditionally, the song is credited to Everett Cheatham, but there’s at least a little room for doubt on that front. 

Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter

American country music singer, songwriter and actor Tex Ritter (1905 – 1974), 1940s. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Before we venture into the murky waters of authorship, let’s get some fundamentals out of the way. 

Big Al gave his first performance as part of The Country Bear Jamboree on October 1, 1971, the opening day of Walt Disney World. His voice was provided by Country Hall of Fame member Tex Ritter (who is the father of actor John Ritter, who made his film debut in Disney’s The Barefoot Executive, and grandfather of Jason Ritter, who supplied the voice of Dipper Pines in Disney’s Gravity Falls). 

Born in Panola County, Texas in 1905, Ritter grew up immersed in western music. His love and knowledge of the genre grew under the tutelage of such luminaries as J. Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox, and John Lomax when he attended the University of Texas.

By the late 1920s, he had relocated to New York, where he began performing on Broadway, even appearing in productions like Green Grow the Lilacs (a show which would inspire the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!).

According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, “By mid-decade, the enormous success of Gene Autry’s westerns led other film studios to look for their own singing cowboys. One of the first producers to recognize Ritter’s potential was Edward Finney, who signed him and released his first starring film, Song of the Gringo, in 1936. Ritter was well suited to the role of singing cowboy. He looked and acted the part and was singing the type of songs he loved best.”

In 1942, Ritter became one of the first artists to sign with the newly formed Capitol Records, a move that would lead to the most successful portion of his career. He recorded a string of hits, including, “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You,” “You Two-Timed Me One Time to Often,” and “You Will Have to Pay,” all of which reached number one on the country charts. Other songs, like “Rye Whiskey,” “Jealous Heart,” “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” “I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven,” and “When You Leave, Don’t Slam the Door,” were also highly successful.

In 1960, he released the album Blood on the Saddle, which featured the song that would become synonymous with Big Al, as well as country & western classics such as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” “Boll Weevil,” and “Streets of Laredo.” 

Five years later, he relocated to Nashville, where he began performing with the Grand Ole Opry and on WSM Radio. An unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate followed in 1970. Fortunately for Ritter, he would soon be immortalized as the greatest singing bear in history (sorry Teddi Barra). 

Everett Cheetham

Everett Cheetham

Curiously, Green Grow the Lilacs would introduce another character in the Big Al saga. Everett Cheatham, born in 1902 in Wyoming, also played a role in the show. His IMDB biography notes, “Everett Cheetham’s genuine cowboy background included years of entertaining the guests at Dude Ranches, leading trail rides, and competing in rodeos in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho with his long-time friend, Hank Worden. He is best remembered for composing “Blood on the Saddle” and “The Lavender Cowboy”, and for his appearance with Tex Ritter in Lynn Rigg’s folk musical “Green Grow the Lilacs”…Cheetham and his friend Worden were contestants in the annual Madison Square Garden rodeo, and answered a casting call for cowboy singers, musician and yodelers and both were cast in the play, with Cheetham singing “The Strawberry Roan” and “Red River Valley.” After the play closed, Cheetham worked in New York radio with Ritter, then gave up show business to return to Wyoming.”

The entrance of Cheetham into the story is where things become murky. Most accounts credit him as the author of “Blood on the Saddle,” but it may not be as clear cut as all that. As noted on the webpage Mudcat, “Blood on the Saddle may have been written by Everett Cheetham, of Taos, New Mexico, sometime in the 1920s, as he told interviewer Jerry Herndon in 1974….However…Arizona cowpuncher and radio singin’ cowboy Romy Lowdermilk told Katie Lee in 1969 that *he* was the author and had traded the song to Cheetham around 1929 for one of Cheetham’s called “Jose Cuervo’s Daughter” (Lowdermilk called that song “a good one”.) Lowdermilk recalled that he and cartoonist J. W. Williams had cooked up the first stanza, apparently without music, which Williams later used in one of his cartoons. Lowdermilk made the song “longer and goryer [sic].”

And that’s not the end of the confusion, as, “…someone else told Katie Lee that he’d heard a cowboy named Oklahoma Pete singin’ it in Alberta in 1905….” Of course, this type of confusion is nothing new to the world of folk and cowboy music, which often functions in the same manner as an oral storytelling tradition, with songs being passed from musician to musician, growing organically, and changing over the years. 

As for the song’s inspiration, it seems to have come from a real-life event. At least, if one assumes Cheetham as the actual author. According to an article in the Journal of American Folklore, Cheetham, “wrote the song about a rodeo rider who was injured at the Wickenburg, Arizona, rodeo. [Ritter] maintains that the song was meant to be a serious one about a genuinely tragic event, but, when Everett Cheetham sang it at the dude ranches where he worked, the people laughed. Thus it became a comedy song…”

The lyrics, for those folks who may want a full taste of the hilarity are:

There was blood on the saddle and blood all around

And a great big puddle of blood on the ground

A cowboy lay in it all covered with gore

And he never will ride any broncos no more

Oh, pity the cowboy, all bloody and red

For the bronco fell on him and bashed in his head

There was blood on the saddle and blood all around

And a great big puddle of blood on the ground

Now that’s comedy! 

Regardless of the song’s true authorship, we can all agree that NO ONE has performed it with the same panache as Big Al. The greatest performer of our (or any) time.