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

The Far Out Sounds of Sonny Eclipse

Sonny Eclipse

(Author’s note: Portions of this piece, specifically quotes provided by George Wilkins and Kal David, previously appeared in the article “The Biggest Little Star in the Galaxy: Sonny Eclipse” which I wrote for Celebrations Magazine, Issue 53, which was released in May of 2017.) 

The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” It’s a lovely sentiment but doesn’t quite seem sweeping enough. After all, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that the love of music extends well beyond humanity. Who can forget Experiment 626 (aka Stitch) and his adoration of Elvis? Or the swinging sounds of Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes on Tatooine? And, of course, there are the melodious sounds of the Biggest Little Star in the Galaxy: Sonny Eclipse, the resident musician at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.

The funny little alien from the planet Zork has been entertaining Guests at the Magic Kingdom since 1994, performing an act that would be just as comfortable in a Las Vegas lounge or aboard a cruise ship. Alternating between songs and corny jokes, Eclipse performs on his “amazing Astro Organ” and is accompanied by an invisible group of backup singers known as the Space Angels. He’s like an extra-terrestrial version of Wayne Newton or Bobby Vinton, with just a hint of Esquivel thrown in to give his music a space-age bachelor pad feel.   

But how exactly did Sonny Eclipse come to inhabit his spot in the Most Magical Place on Earth? To understand that, we’ll need to take a trip back to the past.

The Tomorrow That Never Was

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney described Tomorrowland as, “A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements … a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals: the Atomic Age, the challenge of outer space, and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.”

The area would be a place to peer into the future and experience the cutting edge of human innovation, from journeys into outer space to the home of tomorrow. The problem, as Walt once declared, was that “Tomorrow is a heck of a thing to keep up with.” Technological progress rapidly transformed what once seemed science fiction into fact, rendering views of the future obsolete, or exposing them as wildly inaccurate predictions.

Journalist Hendrick Hertzberg wrote about the problem as far back as the 1980s, when he said that the area, “was the only [land] I had really wanted to see as a kid, because it was supposed to show what the future would be like. But this is 1981, and if Tomorrowland is any guide, the future has seen better days.” 

Author Lindsay Mott described the dilemma in her Celebrations Magazine article “Tomorrowland: Bringing the Future to Life Through Imagination”. In the piece, she notes that Tony Baxter began considering the conundrum as he worked on Disneyland Paris. In fact, he stated outright, “We are faced with [the fact that Tomorrowland] is out of date. We’ve gotten locked into the idea that the future was white stucco and gleaming glass.” 

Because of this, the area was re-imagined in the 90s. In 1994, the New Tomorrowland debuted at the Magic Kingdom, embracing a retro sci-fi style that could best be described as depicting “the tomorrow that never was”. The new aesthetic resembles the future as depicted in comics like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon and television shows like Lost In Space and The Jetsons. 

With all of this in mind, it’s not a stretch to say that Sonny Eclipse is essentially the musical embodiment of the land’s new ethic. His musical styling is anachronistic, sounding more like some hi-fi recording of the Rat Pack than whatever we might perceive as the “music of tomorrow”. 

We Choose to Go To The Moon

Neil Armstrong on the Moon

The Space Age officially began in 1957 with the Russian launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. It reached its peak during the Apollo program, which lasted from 1968-1972, and saw the first human land on the moon. As noted by NASA, “Sputnik’s launch caught the United States by surprise and led to the creation of NASA.  The Space Race was inaugurated between the two countries, as each superpower sought to achieve superiority in space.  The competition led to the rapid development of space capabilities by both countries, first putting animals and then humans in space and sending automatic probes to the Moon and planets.”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous, “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, detailing his plans to send a man to the moon. In it, he stated, “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people…But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal?…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The preoccupation with space was not only political, it became a cultural craze. That same year, the Jetsons debuted on ABC, depicting a family of the future. They inhabited a Googie-style home, had a robot maid, and commuted to work in an aero car. Three years later, the show Lost In Space would debut, taking the premise of the classic adventure novel “The Swiss Family Robinson” and re-imagining it for the Space Age. 

As the New York Times noted, “An effect was much more than simply a spillover from the silvery streamlining of the space program. It was an increasing preoccupation with the future and technology that helped change not only the country’s look in the 1950s and ’60s but also, in some ways, its very conception of itself as if seen anew from space.”

During this same time period, a few new musical genres began to flourish. Easy listening, lounge music, and space-age pop all came into being. Frank Sinatra had become the leader of the Rat Pack in 1957 (the same year Sputnik launched), after the passing of Humphrey Bogart. Along with performers like Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, the group became synonymous with Las Vegas (which introduced its iconic ‘Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign in 1959).

As noted in a 1996 Chicago Tribune article, “In the late 1950s and early ’60s, it was a scene glamorized by Hollywood and countless albums that functioned as aural travelogues of exotic locales, from Hawaii to outer space. In this idealized, stylized version of the high-life, the lounge was the place where Sammy and Frank, and Dino hung out and shared a martini or three while chiding the squares to “Just swing, baby!””

Juan Garcia Esquivel, typically referred to simply by his last name, was another key innovator in the genre. NPR even went so far as to describe him as, “the man who practically invented 1950s lounge music.” He is, perhaps, best known, as the leading figure in the space age pop movement, a curiously hard-to-define genre. The webpage Space Age Pop writes, “This music might be characterized most easily by what it isn’t. It’s rarely simple enough in structure and instrumentation to be called rock (and certainly retains enough of a sense of humor to be disqualified as art rock). It’s not serious or straightforward enough to be called jazz. It’s often too esoteric or extreme to be called pop. It’s in some middle ground between all of these, which means it’s populated with the outcasts from other well-established genres. As a result, Space Age Pop is full of brilliant, bizarre, and exciting sounds, which are particularly striking to ears accustomed to the stereotypes that populate the more familiar genres.”

Jet Set Pop followed in the sixties, featuring artists like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, while composer John Barry wrote the smokey, evocative music of James Bond. Albums like Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s 1964 release ‘Getz/Gilberto’ introduced wider audiences to Bossa Nova classics like “The Girl from Ipanema”. In 1966, Sergio Mendes would release a cover of Jorge Ben’s ‘Mas Que Nada’. 

While all of these musical forms had their own idiosyncrasies, what they had in common was a mood. They were leisure music, the type that you might listen to while wearing a smoking jacket and sipping a martini. Though the style would eventually be supplanted by rock and roll, for a brief time it represented the good life for the hi-fi generation, who still believed that technological progress would be the cure for mankind’s woes.

It was this very trust in the promise of the future that Walt tapped into with the creation of Tomorrowland, an optimism that would slowly disappear in the coming years with the chaos of the Vietnam War, the terror of the Cold War, the War on Drugs, and the AIDS crisis. 

With all of that in mind, it makes sense that Disney would attempt to tap into this bygone sense of unbridled optimism when creating “the tomorrow that never was”. 

The Biggest Little Star in the Galaxy

Longtime Disney composer George Wilkins–who also wrote music for The Living Seas, It’s Tough to Be A Bug, and other classic Disney attractions– wrote the music for Sonny Eclipse with the help of Imagineer Kevin Rafferty.

Wilkins’s journey through the music industry started in the 50s when he performed with Patti Page. In the 60s, he formed a group called the Doodletown Pipers, who played with such luminaries as Count Basie and Bing Crosby. 

Back in 2017, I had the good fortune to interview Wilkins for an article in Celebrations Magazine. At that time, he told me, “I started with Walt Disney Pictures in 1979 as a staff composer. I worked with Buddy Baker to start with and then got very busy writing and producing music for Epcot and Disney Tokyo.”

In his book “Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career”, Kevin Rafferty recalled, “George Wilkins and I wrote eight original songs for the character. I thought it would be fun for Sonny to sing different types of music, from ballads to rock to blues to “Bossa Super Nova” so we wrote in all those styles. I penned the lyrics and jokes to reflect Sonny’s outer space perspective.”

According to the official backstory that was created for the character, Sonny played mall openings, bar mitzvahs, and weddings prior to getting hired at Cosmic Ray’s. Rafferty even stated, “He’s a big deal on his planet, but on our planet, he’s really down to earth.” That planet, for the record, is called Zork. And Sonny’s hometown is the city of Yew Nork. 

In speaking with Wilkins, he told me that the original concept had been for Sonny to sing inverted versions of jazz standards, transforming songs like ‘How High the Moon’ into things like ‘How Low the Moon’ but the idea was quickly abandoned after licensing costs were taken into consideration. Instead, the following songs were composed:

  • My Name is Sonny Eclipse 
  • Out in Space
  • Hello Space Angels
  • Gravity Blues
  • Starlight Soup and Salad
  • Bright Little Star
  • Planetary Boogie
  • Yew Nork, Yew Nork

“Because Sonny is a nightclub act he had to have a girls back up trio,” Wilkins said. “Since that would have been impossible money-wise, we made them ‘invisible space angels’ that he could call upon wherever and whenever. As far as the Astro Organ went, we knew a performer who had a MIDI setup very much like we needed that could do anything from musical instruments to sound effects.”

The smooth crooning voice for Sonny was provided by bluesman Kal David. He broke into music in 1962 when he formed Kal David and the Exceptions. Over the course of his career, he performed with legends like Etta James and as lead guitarist for John Mayall. His first contact with Wilkins came about at a lounge where Kal and his band were performing.

“He was friends with some of the members of my band,” David said. “I guess he liked us because he returned several times.”

The two worked together on a song for Epcot’s Wonders of Life Pavilion in 1989, with David singing “Unhealthy Living Blues” in the Goofy About Health Area. He later auditioned for the part of Sonny and was brought into the project. 

According to David, “George played all the music that you hear on Sonny’s tracks on synth…but the only thing the synthesizer cannot emulate is the guitar. So he had me play the parts.”

The part of the Space Angels was performed by a group known as ‘The Brunettes’, one of whose members, Lauri Bono, is David’s wife.

“The Brunettes are Lauri Bono, Amy Weston, and Patti Brooks,” David said. “They sang in my larger band and I was musical director for them and the leader of their band. When George was casting the Space Angels, we told him about Amy and Patti and he like the idea of the self-contained group as opposed to hiring three individuals. Also, they are great singers with a natural blend. In order to justify the existence of the Space Angels we wrote a song that tells how they came to exist.”

The resultant show runs around 25 minutes long and has developed something of a cult following among Magic Kingdom devotees. In his book, Rafferty even notes, “I can’t tell you how thrilled I was the first time I saw Guests responding to him with their fingers snapping and toes tapping–and some of them even danced to his musical stylings. Imagine my surprise when I read a newspaper article about two Disney park fans who fell in love while dancing to “their” song, “Bright Little Star” by Sonny Eclipse!”

Nearly 30 years have passed since Sonny debuted in Tomorrowland, and his performances continue to delight and entertain visitors to the Magic Kingdom. His smooth, cool voice and groovy melodies still transport Guests out of today and into the world of yesterday’s tomorrow. Not bad for a little Zorkie from Yew Nork. 

Magic and Imagination: The Music of the Main Street Electrical Parade

Main Street Electrical Parade

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Disneyland proudly presents

Our spectacular festival pageant

Of nighttime magic and imagination

In thousands of sparkling lights

And electro-syntho-magnetic musical sounds,

The Main Street Electrical Parade!

Fifty years ago, Guests at Disneyland first heard those magical words. They were spoken in a sing-song robotic voice and introduced the world to the park’s latest nighttime spectacular: a parade of glittering lights and whimsical electronic music. 

With the success of Walt Disney World’s Electrical Water Pageant (which debuted in 1971), Disneyland decided to explore the idea of similar entertainment. Ron Miziker, an entertainment producer for Disney, came across an article at the Anaheim public library explaining how people would string together lightbulbs and then parade down the streets in the earliest days of electricity. That simple story sparked an idea, that Bob Jani would transform into the Main Street Electrical Parade. 

While the twinkling, multicolor lights are the stars of the show, it’s hard to imagine it having such enduring success without the memorable musical score that plays. In early concepts, Jani thought that the music of Fantasia should provide the soundtrack. Jack Wagner (who you might know as the voice declaring, “Remain seated please; permanecer sentados por favor.” and “Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas.”) disagreed with the choice, believing that the music should be electronic instead of orchestral.

Outside of Disney, Wagner worked as a DJ and had an enormous collection of records at home. He began searching through the collection until coming across an album by Jean Jacques Perrey and Gerson Kingsley called “Spotlight on the Moog: Kaleidoscopic Vibrations”. On side two of the record, he discovered “Baroque Hoedown”, the song which became the theme for the Main Street Electrical Parade.

The In Sound From Way Out

Born in 1929, Jean Jacques Perrey did not set out to become a musician. Instead, he started out in medical school. He left those studies to begin creating musique concrete compositions, an experimental technique that involved using natural sounds to create a montage of sound. 

According to longtime collaborator Dana Countryman, Perrey’s experiments with electronic synthesizers began in the 1950s. According to Countryman, “Jean-Jacques first started recording electronic music in 1952, long before the Moog synthesizer was first made for sale in 1967…Relocating from Paris to New York City, JJ actually owned and recorded with the second Moog ever produced…Jean-Jacques was truly the pioneer of popular electronic music.”

After moving to the United States in the 1960s,  Perrey met Gershon Kingsley. Seven years his senior, Kingsley grew up in Berlin, before moving to Palestine, where he taught himself to play the piano. He later played jazz in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv before emigrating to the United States. He studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of music and began writing music for Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

Perrey and Kingsley joined forces to become an electronic music duo, releasing the groundbreaking album “The In Sound from Way Out!” in 1966. The liner notes to the record note that it was the product of 275 hours of work and several miles of tape. In addition to the album’s use of feedback loops, oscillators, and musique concrete recordings, Perrey played the Ondioline, an electronic keyboard that became the forerunner of modern synthesizers. Tracks on the finished product included titles like “Computer in Love”, “Swan’s Splashdown” (a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”), and “Spooks In Space” (a variation on Camille Saint’Saens’s “Danse Macabre”). The webpage Seven 45rpm describes the album as, “filled with tunes that sounded like some kind of surreal animated cartoon from out-of-space gone berserk.”

The following year, the duo released “Kaleidoscopic Vibrations”. It is notable for being one of the earliest to ever use the Moog (a modular synthesizer developed by Robert Moog). The album featured a number of arrangements of popular songs, as well as several original compositions. Kingsley’s orchestrations were recorded first, before Perrey added tape loops and effects to each track. 

Baroque Hoedown is the first track on side two of the record. The song is a bright, cheery piece, once described as “harpsichord gone country”. The title hints at this juxtaposition, with baroque referring to the music of 17th to mid-18th century that was known for being heavily ornamented (composers include Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel). It sounds a bit like Bach as interpreted by a stereotypical pianist in a western saloon. In short, perfect for a grand parade of twinkling lights, fanciful characters, and childlike wonder.

Electro-Syntho-Magnetic Musical Sounds

As noted, Wagner was looking for music for the Main Street Electrical Parade when he encountered “Baroque Hoedown”. He passed the piece along to music director Jim Christensen, who endorsed the choice. According to Don Dorsey,  a musician, producer, director, and audio engineer who worked on the 1977 version of the Main Street Electrical Parade, “The bright electronic sound and quick, catchy melody were infectious.  The tempo was right for choreography and a one-minute and three-second portion could be looped to play continuously; exactly what parade music needed to do.” 

Wagner and Christensen then met synth programmer Paul Beaver. Paul and Jim worked together, recording demos. According to Dorsey, “One was a short patriotic medley and the other was the original Baroque Hoedown recording with a synth bass line added.” Dorsey further notes, “it was decided to build the entire parade on top of Baroque Hoedown, a technique similar to “It’s a Small World” where one melody is overlaid with multiple synchronized arrangements.  In this plan, instead of moving the audience through the arrangements, the arrangements would move past the audience.  Armed with sketches of the parade floats, Jim began the puzzle-like process of fitting Disney melodies into the harmonic structure and format of Baroque Hoedown.”

Six musical scenes were created for the parade, all built around Perrey and Kingsley’s composition. Curiously, despite the fact that Disney obtained the rights to use the music, Perrey was unaware of the fact until 1980. He recalled, “In the 1970s, Walt Disney Productions chose this tune to be the theme for the Electrical Parade. It was extraordinary, I didn’t know about it because the publishers said nothing to me. It was by chance, in 1980, that I went there and was so surprised to hear “Baroque Hoedown” arranged for a full orchestra.”

Though the parade was a wild success, it was retired in 1974 as Disney prepared to celebrate America’s Bicenntenial. It was this new spectacular that brough Don Dorsey into the picture, as he was asked to create music for “America on Parade”.

In 1977, with the Bicenntenial celebration in the rearview, the company decided to bring the Electrical Parade back. Dorsey was named music director, and he brought a new approach to the parade. According to the history on his webpage, “The original parade had begun with a manually triggered tape of an oscillator sweep, followed by a fade in of the continuous parade music as the lights were turned off in each area the parade approached. Don wanted to heighten the excitement of the parade beginning by incorporating a fanfare that segued directly into the parade tempo. He also wanted to synchronize a dramatic “lights out” cue to the music. As the parade progressed through the park, this would require an inaudible transition from each new fanfare into the continuous track in perfect synchronization. To accomplish this, Don invented a production and playback method called the Opening Window which has been used to kick off virtually every Disney parade since.”

Dorsey, Wagner, and Christensen worked together to create the updated version of the music. In 1979, one final enhancement was added, when Dorsey suggested that Wagner’s introduction be run through a vocoder, transforming it into the robotic sounding voice that has become so associated with the parade. 

Over the years, segments have come and gone, including portions for The Fox and the Hound, Pleasure Island, and Return to Oz, while some additions (such as Peter Pan) have become permanent fixtures. 

50 Years of Nighttime Magic and Imagination

On April 22, the Main Street Electrical Parade returned to Disneyland, adding a grand finale float that, according to Disneyland’s’s official page, celebrates, “the theme of togetherness, reflected in a design that brings together characters and moments from more than a dozen beloved Disney and Pixar stories. These stylized scenes—interpreted in thousands of sparkling lights and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sound—bring to light classic and contemporary favorites such as Encanto, The Jungle Book, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Princess and the Frog, Coco, Mulan and more. Inspired by both the design of classic Main Street Electrical Parade floats and Disney Legend Mary Blair’s art style on “it’s a small world,” the new grand finale float is one of the longest and grandest in the parade’s 50-year history!”

At half a century old, it remains one of the most beloved Disney experiences, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. Here’s to many happy returns of the day and the hope that the Main Street Electrical Parade is around for another 50 years at least. 

Jimmie Dodd & The Mickey Mouse March

Who’s the leader of the club

That’s made for you and me?

If you’re a longtime fan of Disney, I’m sure you know what comes next. You can probably hear the melody in your head.

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!

The Mickey Mouse March first paraded onto televisions across the United States on October 3, 1955. The song served as the theme for the Mickey Mouse Club, a program that debuted a few months after the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim. The show lasted an hour and featured a cast of “Mouseketeers” who sang songs and performed skits in-between Disney cartoons and Disney Newsreels. 

Each week featured a different theme, and included serials like The Adventures of Spin and Marty, The Secret of Mystery Lake, and Annette (a segment featuring Annette Funicello as Annette McLoud, a poor orphan from the country who moves to the big city). 

Funicello became one of the show’s biggest stars, as did Bobby Burgess and Cubby O’Brien. Other Mouseketeers included Karen Pendleton, Darlene Gillespie, Tommy Cole, and Lonnie Burr, to name just a few. 

Jimmie Dodd acted as MC and “Head Mouseketeer”. An actor, singer, and songwriter, Dodd actually penned the Mickey Mouse March. A 2016 article from WCPO in Cincinnati noted, “Jimmie Dodd really was the leader of the club. He was its songwriter, its singer, its host, and its soul — the man Walt Disney rubber-stamped to emcee his variety show (1955-59) for kids after hearing just one composition by the Cincinnatian: ‘The Pencil Song.’”

Let’s get to know the wonderful Mr. Dodd a little better.

Hey There, Hi There, Ho There…

Jimmie Dodd Playing Guitar

Born on March 28, 1910, Dodd grew up in Cincinnati. His parents divorced while he was still young. After the split, Dodd’s father, who played the violin and sang on WLW-AM radio for a decade, moved a few houses away and began working at a music store. Against that backdrop, it seems inevitable that Jimmie would develop a passion for songwriting.

By high school, he was playing banjo, a skill he would put to use in a local dance band while attending the University of Cincinnati. During this time he also began performing on the radio. 

After spending time at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, he moved to Florida. His official biography on D23 notes, “His first professional job was playing guitar and singing his own songs for a St. Petersburg, Florida, radio station. He later appeared with bandleader Louis Prima.” As a fun side note, Prima would later perform his own piece of iconic Disney music in the song ‘I Wanna Be Like You.’ It was Prima who provided the voice of King Louie in The Jungle Book. 

Dodd eventually found his way to California in 1937. Three years later, he made his silver screen debut as Evans in the comedy “Those Were the Days!” starring William Holden and Bonita Granville. 

In 1940, he married Ruth Carroll who became his performing partner. They entertained frequently at USO shows. Beginning in 1943, they appeared in North Africa, before moving to the China/Burma/India Theater in late 1944.  

Over the next 15 years, he would appear in a staggering 77 films. Contacts made during the overseas tours helped him break into television, first with Arthur Godfrey and later with Jinx Falkenburg.

He was hospitalized in 1951 and the expense proved a significant burden on his and Ruth’s finances. By a stroke of luck, a songwriting contest was held to find an “official” song for Washington D.C. The local history site Boundary Stones, run by the D.C.-based public broadcasting station WETA, writes, “ James H. Simon, a TV and radio salesman native to Georgetown, related his plight of having to attend business conferences and feeling left out each time all the state songs were played. “It’s almost a contest. The Texans even bring guns to shoot off when they sing ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.’ On Jan. 17, 1951, his letter to the editor bemoaning the state of things was published in The Washington Post…Thus, Simon proposed a solution: a nationwide “Song for Washington” contest (sponsored by Motorola, Simon’s wholesale dealer) to find an anthem worthy of the Nation’s Capital. The Washington Post jumped on the idea the very same day with an editorial endorsement.”

Dodd entered the contest and his song was declared the winner. As the winner, he was awarded $1000, money that he sorely needed.

Sometime in the mid-50s, Dodd’s friend Bill Justice from Walt Disney Studios contacted him. He mentioned that Walt needed a song written about a pencil. D23 wrote of the incident, “So Jimmie wrote and personally performed a little “pencil” ditty for Walt, which won him his role on the Mickey Mouse Club. According to Santoli, Walt suddenly proclaimed, “Hey, Jim is the one who should be on the Mickey Mouse Club!”

The Leader of the Club

Dodd’s output was prolific during the Mickey Mouse Club’s four-year run. He penned 22 songs for the show before it even began filming, including We Are the Merry Mouseketeers, Here Comes The Circus, and of course, The Mickey Mouse March.

For Mouseketeers who may need a little refresher, the lyrics were as follows:

Who’s the leader of the club

That’s made for you and me?

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

Hey there, hi there, ho there

You’re as welcome as can be

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse

Forever let us hold our banner high

High, high, high

Come along and sing a song

And join the jamboree

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

Mickey Mouse club

We’ll have fun, we’ll be new faces

High, high, high, high

We’ll do things and we’ll go places

All around the world

We’ll go marching

Who’s the leader of the club

That’s made for you and me

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

Hey there, hi there, ho there

You’re as welcome as can be

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse

Forever let us hold our banner high

High, high, high

Come along and sing a song

And join the jamboree

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

The song, as originally written, was a simple march written in 2/4 time. Of course, numerous renditions have appeared over the years. A disco version was made for The New Mickey Mouse Club, which ran from 1977 to1979, and a pop version was used for The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (1989-1996). A variation on the song also appeared in the social media series dubbed Club Mickey Mouse (2017-2018). 

Through its longevity, it has become one of the most recognizable Disney melodies, instantly recognizable around the world.  It is simultaneously a symbol of the joy and laughter brought about by Mickey Mouse and the creativity, camaraderie, and charm of the Mickey Mouse Club. 

As the show’s host, Dodd quickly became a full-blown Disney celebrity. WCPO noted, “Dodd’s ride with the Mouseketeers lasted 10 years (1955-64), five on a live show on weekdays; two as a Disney promoter and leader of two live Mouse Club tours in Australia, and two as host of syndicated “Mouse Club” reruns.” In addition, he appeared in the brief-lived Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland, where he served as Ring Master. 

On the Mickey Mouse Club, he was known for performing on his four-string, tenor guitar (dubbed a Mousegetar), and for the brief messages he delivered at the end of each episode which served to impart a simple, moral lesson to the viewers. They became known as “Doddisms”, and one of his favorites came from the French philosopher Etienne de Grolier, who said, “I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there by any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, to any fellow being, let me do it now and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” 

Though he died in 1964, a few years after the show’s original run ended, he left behind a monumental amount of work. In addition to his 77 movie credits, he appeared in 332 episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club and wrote 525 songs. Most importantly, Dodd’s memory lives on in the hearts of Mouseketeers young and old around the world.  

An article on the page ‘The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show, states, “It was Mickey’s club and Walt’s studio, but it was Jimmie’s show. He was the indispensable cast member who tied everything together, day to day, season to season.”

For their part, D23 wrote, “ With his trusty “Mousegetar” in hand, the singer, songwriter, musician, dancer, and actor was a friend to children across the nation. He often transferred his infectious spirit through Doddisms, delightful instruction on the principles of good living, which he shared on each show to “help us all be better Mouseketeers.”

While both are fitting tributes to the man who brought music to the Mickey Mouse Club, it seems most fitting to pay tribute and end with his own words:

Now Mouseketeers

there’s one thing we want you

always to remember.

Come along and sing our song

and join our family

M-I-C

K-E-Y

M-O-U-S-E

Through the years we’ll all

be friends

wherever we may be.

M-I-C

K-E-Y

M-O-U-S-E

Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse

forever let us hold our

banner high.

Now its time to say goodbye

to all our company.

M-I-C

Spoken:

see you real soon

K-E-Y

Spoken:

why? because we like you

M-O-U-S-E.

Jimmie Dodd and the Mickey Mouse Club

Heart, We Did All That We Could: The Teddi Barra Story

Teddi Barra

A few names probably spring to mind when you think of the Queens of Country Music. Patsy Cline. Loretta Lynn. Dolly Parton. And, of course, the fabulous Teddi Barra. After all, she’s the last of the big-time swingers. 

As a world-famous Country Bears member, Teddi Barra has been entertaining Guests at Walt Disney World since the resort’s opening in 1971. A year later, she made her California debut, when the attraction opened at Disneyland, and in 1983 she went global when Country Bear Jamboree became part of Tokyo Disneyland. 

Her appearance is one of the most unforgettable moments of the attraction as she descends from the ceiling on a swing whose ropes are wrapped in roses. Her off-white fur makes a beautiful contrast to the bright pink boa draped around her shoulders. A parasol rests on one shoulder, and a hat that would be the envy of any debutante from the deep south. 

She doesn’t merely rest on her ursine good looks. She sings with a crystal clear voice that tugs at the heartstrings and captivates the audience, despite the fact that her entire performance lasts less than one minute. 

But just who is this enchanting chanteuse? The liner notes to the Country Bear Jamboree vinyl, released in 1972, offer this bit of background:

“Teddi Barra was discovered sitting on a soda fountain stool in an ice cream parlor three miles from Gentry, Arkansas. From there, her rise in show biz was meteoric, and the ravishing beauty is known as The Jewel of the Dakotas. Though she has always wanted to perform serious drama, her fans have never let her forget her feather boa and her parasol, both of which have been promised to the Daughters of Benton County Western Museum when they wear out. In Grizzly Hall she performs her famous “Heart, We Did All We Could” while descending from the ceiling on a swing. She has been called The Last of the Big Time Swingers.” 

The lyrics of her song are a tender lamentation of love gone wrong:

Well, there he goes

He hardly knows

The heart he’s breaking

I talked to him

But I don’t think

He understood

Oh, just forget

About the plans

That we were making

Heart, we did all that could…

While Make Mine Music doesn’t drift into the world of celebrity gossip, there’s also reason to believe that she is romantically linked to one of her co-stars. Teddi Barra and Henry, the MC of the Jamboree, flirt a bit near the end of her performance. Is it just playful banter, or are the two actually sweethearts? While we’ve reached out to both parties to try and get an answer, we received a polite, but firm response of, “No comment.”

Honky Tonk Blues

Okay. Okay. Obviously, we know that Teddi Barra is just an audio-animatronic and not an ACTUAL singing bear. It’s just that the Imagineers made her so darn convincing. But what about the story behind the bear? The creatives who brought her to life? 

Let’s start with the performer who first gave the world the song “Heart, We Did All That We Could”, a honey-voiced honky tonk woman from Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma.

Born in 1933, Ollie Imogene Shepard (known professionally as Jean Shepard) fell in love with country music by gathering around the old family radio.

“I had a hard life, but it was a good life,” she recalled. “I had a wonderful mother and daddy. I chopped corn and I picked cotton. And it didn’t hurt me a bit. But every Saturday night, we’d take an hour off and turn on an old radio and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. That’s how I come about country music – and loved the sounds that came out of that radio.”

She began her musical career as the bass player for an all-female band called the Melody Ranch Girls. At the age of 20, she scored her first hit with “A Dear John Letter”, before joining the ABC television show ‘Ozark Jubilee’ a few years later.

While a cast member on the show, she fell in love with co-star Harold “Hawkshaw” Hawkins. They married on stage in 1960, but tragedy soon followed. Hawkins was killed in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Randy Hughes.

The birth of her second son and country music kept her going. By the next year, she scored a hit with “Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar.)” In 1967, Shepard released the song “Heart, We Did All That We Could” on her album of the same name.  It reached #12 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart.

By the end of her career, she had been a cast member for the Grand Ole Opry for 60 consecutive years, the longest of any female member. In 2011, she became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

From a Jack to a King

Ned Miller

While Teddi Barra’s mournful ballad was made famous by Jean Shepard, it was written by Ned Miller, a musician born in Rains, Utah in 1925. Growing up in Salt Lake City, he attended Murray High School and began writing songs at the age of 16 before becoming a United States Marine.

Though he did perform, Miller thought of himself primarily as a songwriter, and even suffered from severe stage fright. In fact, he was so afraid of performing in public that at times he would ask friends to appear and perform under his name. 

His song “From a Jack to a King” was released in 1957 but did not become a hit until five years later when Capitol Records re-released it. Over the years, it would be covered by performers ranging from Elvis Presley to Bobby Darrin. 

Though he had several other hits, he left the recording industry in 1970, and by all accounts, never longed to return. Ricky Van Shelton would later record his own version of “From a Jack to a King”, riding it all the way to the top of the country music charts.

Country Music Royalty

Patsy Stoneman

Of course, knowing who provided the tender lyrics for the song, leaves a vital question: Who brought them to life for Disney? It turns out that Teddi Barra’s voice was provided by one of country music’s true legends.

Patsy Stoneman was born to Ernest Van “Pop” Stoneman and Hattie Frost. Both Ernest and Hattie were musicians, and their children followed suit. Together, they went on to form a group known as “The Blue Grass Champs”, before eventually adopting the simpler name of “The Stonemans” or “The Stoneman Family.” 

According to an article in Blue Grass Today, Patsy’s life was always tied to music, with her father recording the songs, ‘The Dying Girls Lament’ and ‘Piney Woods Girl’ on the day she was born. 

Like singers Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Stoneman’s life was one of great difficulty. Her mother and father had 23 children, only 13 of whom survived. Living through the Great Depression, she recalled, “There was always music in our home, even when there was little food, and at times the roof over our head was a tarpaulin.”

At the age of 17, she married Charles Streeks. Blue Grass today notes, “Through to mid-1963 her life was one of hardship, relationship difficulties, emotional turmoil, and illness; she became involved with another man, thinking that her husband had been killed in an automobile crash and underwent surgery for breast cancer.” Her next marriage lasted only a year, with this husband actually dying in a car wreck. 

Over the years she performed with the family band, playing autoharp and guitar, and later went on to start her own group. However, after the death of her father in 1968, she became the de facto leader of the Stoneman Family, making sure that they kept playing music together and working to preserve her father’s legacy. In 1987, after launching a weekly radio show called ‘At Home With the Stonemans’ she stated, “I am not ready to hang up any of our instruments yet. We have too much to offer the country music business to just throw up our hands and quit. Besides, we have been in the business longer than anybody else, and it just wouldn’t be fair to Daddy to stop.” 

Barry Mazor, who wrote the biography of her father’s musical partner Ralph Peer, noted of Patsy, “She had 10,000 vaudeville jokes and song lyrics in her head, and they’d come bubbling up. She was witty, she was funny, and she was sometimes more straight-talking than people wanted to hear.”

Sister Donna Stoneman reflected, “I’ve never seen a woman like her in all my life. She grew her own vegetables, cooked three meals a day, plowed and picked cotton.”

Perhaps the legendary Emmylou Harris put it best, when she declared, “Patsy Stoneman, you are the BOMB!”

Come Up and See Me Sometime

Mae West

It would be remiss to talk about Teddi Barra and not mention another influence on her character: the one and only Mae West. In the history of cinema, there are few figures who have carved out their place so memorably as West. In her life, she was an actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, and sex symbol. In addition to movies, she appeared on vaudeville and in theater and was known for her sharp tongue and witticisms. 

Without question, her most famous scene comes in the film ‘She Done Him Wrong’, co-starring Carey Grant. In it, she suggestively says to Grant, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” The line, with mild variation, would be repeated in her next film with Grant, ‘I’m No Angel’. 

As fans of the Country Bears will no doubt recall after she finishes singing, Teddi Barra says in a sultry voice, “Y’all come up and see me some time, ya hear?” 

Between West, Shepard, and Stoneman, it’s clear that Teddi Barra was always destined to be a dynamo of a character, strong-willed, charismatic, and with talent and sass to spare. Just the character to bring the shy Ned Miller’s lovely lyrics to vibrant life.

In the Key of Disney

When talking about the history of popular music, it is safe to say that there are few individuals as important as Brian Wilson. A true genius who has influenced artists from The Beatles to Questlove of the Roots, he’s a master songwriter, performer, and producer. Beyond his lyrical brilliance, he is a  master of harmony and melody. He crafts beautiful, complex orchestrations that are endlessly fascinating. They’re the types of songs that seem to constantly surprise. Even more impressive? He manages to package those intricate arrangements in catchy melodies.

It makes sense that his path would eventually cross with that of Disney. Music has always played an integral part in the wonderful world of Disney, and the company has given the world some of its best-known and best-loved songs. 

In 2011, Wilson released the album ‘In the Key of Disney’, a collection of 11 Disney songs (13 if you count the two bonus tracks exclusive to Amazon) as interpreted by Wilson. It was the second album he released through Walt Disney Records, with the first being a 2010 tribute to George and Ira Gershwin called ‘Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’. 

The finished product is a delightful and entertaining album, combining iconic Disney melodies with Wilson’s masterful arrangements. But to truly understand the record, it’s worth getting a look at how Disney has intersected with his career over the years

When a Star is Born

Born in 1942, Wilson grew up in California–the state he would go on to immortalize in countless songs. In an interview prior to the release of “In the Key of Disney”, Wilson discussed how Disney music shaped his musician sensibilities.

“I was driving in the car with my mother and my aunt and on the radio came ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,” Wilson said. “It taught me how to sing a little bit. By imitating Rosemary Clooney I was able to learn to sing.”

The recording in question was Clooney’s 1955 record ‘When You Wish Upon A Star/It Might As Well Be Spring’ with Harry James and his orchestra. 

Curiously, this would not be the only time the song would play a major role in Wilson’s life. 

Like Dreamers Do

In 1960, the Bronx’s Dion and the Belmonts released their second album. It was titled “Wish Upon a Star” and featured tracks like ‘In the Still of the Night’, and ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, the classic song from Disney’s 1940 film Pinnochio. 

Their interpretation of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s Disney masterpiece is a dreamy bit of doo-wop that borders on pop perfection. The harmonies are gorgeous and the delicate instrumentation is reminiscent of Les Paul and Bing Crosby’s ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time’. It sounds like a languid summer night. 

A young Brian Wilson was particularly taken with the number. Still new to songwriting, he was attempting to pen a piece for then-girlfriend Judy Bowles.

“Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life,” Wilson said.  “I was 19 years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

The song’s melody and structure were both influenced by the Dion & the Belmonts cover, having the same AABA format (a 32 bar form where each section is divided into four sections of 8 bars each. The “A” sections all share the same melody, with “B” serving as the contrast). 

Celebrating the Great Outdoors

Twenty-five years after writing ‘Surfer Girl’ the worlds of Brian Wilson and Disney crossed again. This time it came in the form of a song in the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown. The show featured the characters of Gomer, Max, Buff, Melvin, and the Sun Bonnets performing ‘California Bears’, an adaptation of the massive 1965 hit by the Beach Boys.

As in the original Country Bears show, the ursine crooners sang their renditions of well-known songs, only this time they were singing about the joys of the great outdoors and summer. It makes sense that a Beach Boys tune was included, as that very description could be applied to the majority of their catalog. With songs like ‘Surfin’ USA’ to ‘Warmth of the Sun’, the Beach Boys wrote songs in praise of soaking up rays and living the good life. 

In the Key of Disney

Speaking to USA Today on the release of “In the Key of Disney”, Wilson said, “The Beach Boys sound and the Disney people make a fantastic collaboration. I tried to do justice to all their songs.” 

He accomplishes that and more with his light-hearted and sentimental interpretations of the Disney canon. The track list is a balance of old and new Disney tunes (at the time of the release).

  1. You’ve Got a Friend In Me – Toy Story
  2. The Bare Necessities – The Jungle Book
  3. Baby Mine – Dumbo 
  4. Kiss the Girl – The Little Mermaid
  5. Colors of the Wind – Pocahontas
  6. Can You Feel the Love Tonight – The Lion King
  7. We Belong Together – Toy Story 3
  8. I Just Can’t Wait to Be King – The Lion King
  9. Stay Awake – Mary Poppins
  10. Heigh-Ho/Whistle While You Work/Yo Ho (A Pirates Life for Me) – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs/Pirates of the Caribbean)
  11. When You Wish Upon a Star – Pinnochio
  12. A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes (an Amazon exclusive) – Cinderella
  13. Peace on Earth (an Amazon exclusive) – Lady and the Tramp

Speaking in a promo video from Disney, Wilson said of Disney songs, “They have a certain sweetness, you know, like ‘Stay Awake’. There’s just absolute beautiful melody. That’s my favorite song on the album. Stay awake, don’t rest your head. What a song! It’s the sweetest song I’ve ever heard. I like the harmonies, the vocal harmonies. I love the emotion in the singing. The emotion was one of estrangement and fascinating and beauty and love.”

His take on ‘Kiss the Girl’ is a highlight. The songs “sha-la-la’s” and tender musings on new love already sound like they were plucked from a Beach Boys song, making it a natural fit. ‘We Belong Together’ from Toy Story 3 is another shining moment. The surf rock style guitar line and piano take Randy Newman’s up-tempo and charming ode to friendship and transform it into a song that you could easily picture having been an early 60s radio hit. 

Wilson has also always been a master of gentle love songs, like ‘God Only Knows’ from the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. So, it should come as no surprise that the recordings of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘Baby Mine’, and ‘Stay Awake’ are beautiful.

Altogether, the album is a joy for fans of Disney and music lovers alike, an offering to be savored and listened to over and over.  

Gonna Take You There: Zydeco on the Bayou

Princess and the Frog

New Orleans is like no other city on earth. It’s a gem settled at the base of the Missippi River, a city where the past and the present, the living and the dead, suffering and joy, all blend together. The city is an enigma, welcoming everyone who visits it but refusing to share all of her secrets. It’s a place where the living and dead seem to comingle like the best of friends.      

In 2009, Disney released “The Princess and the Frog” starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, and legendary voice actor Jim Cummings. The movie took the classic German fairy tale, The Frog Prince, and re-imagined it in the Big Easy. 

The majority of the songs used in the film were written by Randy Newman, the man responsible for such classic Disney songs as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, “Our Town” from Cars, and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. Though he was born in Los Angeles, Newman spent a portion of his childhood living in the Crescent City, before alternating between family members’ homes in Mobile, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans. The experience would shape much of his music, with references to Louisiana and the South showing up in albums like Sail Away (1972), Good Old Boys (1974), and the songs “Louisiana 1927”, “Every Man a King”, “Kingfish”, and “Naked Man”. 

Along with the voice cast, Louisiana musicians like Dr. John, Terrence Blanchard, and Terrance Simien helped bring Newman’s compositions for The Princess and the Frog to life, highlighting the diverse musical traditions of the Pelican state. It is, without doubt, one of Disney’s best soundtracks, moving effortlessly between jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and R&B.

The music is so rich and varied that each number deserves its own article, a deep dive into the composition and the history that fed its creation.  This week, we’ll be taking a look at “Gonna Take You There”, the rollicking tune performed by the character of Raymond, a lovesick firefly. 

Before digging into the song, let’s take a look at the history of dance floor delight known as zydeco music. 

A Musical Gumbo

In 1929, Creole accordion player Amédé Ardoin and Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee stepped into a recording booth and made the first recording of a style known as “la-la music”. 

Amede Ardoin

Born in Evangeline Parish around 1898, Ardoin grew up speaking Acadian French. Embracing music, he refused to engage in the manual farm labor of his family, instead setting out around Louisana with his accordion in tow. He is said to have toted the instrument in a burlap sack as he hitchhiked the unpaved backroads from parish to parish. Along the way, he met McGee and their musical partnership began.

Dennis McGee

Mcgee was born in 1893 and also hailed from Evangeline Parish. His father was Irish and his mother was a blend of Seminole and French. He learned to play the fiddle at the feet of his grandfather, and cut his musical teeth by performing popular French dance parlor songs.

The Ardoin/Mcgee recordings give us a glimpse of a sort of proto-zydeco. As noted on Music Rising, their pairing is noteworthy not just for the music they produced, but because the laws of the time would almost certainly have prohibited them from performing together. An article in the Acadiana Advocate wrote that the pair, “crossed racial barriers and defied Jim Crow-era customs to play and record music together.”

Of course, that blending of cultures is a defining characteristic of zydeco (and the la-la music that preceded it). The influence of juré (field hollers performed by enslaved people) can be heard in the music. Listening to recordings of Ardoin, you can also how a variety of styles were married together. He ranges from waltzes to the blues, all with a driving syncopation that made the songs perfect for the dance floor. His vocals are reminiscent of those heard in the recordings of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Even his use of the accordion is indicative of the gumbo of cultures that created zydeco, with the instrument making its way to Louisiana from Germany and Austria in the 19th century.

Writing of Ardoin, Ben Sandmel notes, “he specifically exerted a profound influence upon two important musicians of the following generation: the black Creole accordionist Clifton Chenier, a.k.a. the King of Zydeco, and the Cajun accordionist Iry LeJeune. Clifton Chenier forged the zydeco sound which still defines contemporary standards by performing mainstream African-American blues/R&B hits on the accordion while singing their lyrics in French. LeJeune’s high-pitched emotional vocals and rough-edged accordion work, derived in part from Ardoin, continue to resonate in contemporary Cajun music.”

Likewise, Mcgee’s influence continues to be felt. The webpage 64 Parishes states, “Modern Cajun music is largely defined by two song styles—waltzes in a 3/4 time signature and two-steps in 2/4 or 4/4 time—but McGee was a bridge to the broader range of rural Louisiana French music from the nineteenth century. His earliest recordings testify to his intense proficiency in reels, contredanses, mazurkas, and polkas…In his lifetime, he directly taught or indirectly influenced fully three generations of Cajun fiddlers in the complex and intense archaic style of playing that would come to be known, affectionately, as the “McGee style.”

In 1954, accordion player Boozoo Chavis recorded the song “Paper In My Shoe”, generally acknowledged as the first “official” zydeco song. However, it was Clifton Chenier who truly brought the music wide-reaching fame. He scored a hit with “Ay-Tete Fee” in 1955, and would later win a Grammy award. His music took zydeco and blended it with rock and roll, but he also played R&B numbers and referred to himself as a “bluesman”. He’s credited with being the first zydeco musician to amplify his band and introduced the rubboard as a rhythm instrument. 

Clifton Chenier

The genre has continued to grow and evolve, even incorporating aspects like reggae, hip-hop, and more. It’s a living, organic tradition, that seems content to keep the party going no matter what changes history brings. As Scott Billington writes on Zydeco Crossroads, “No one could have predicted that such an idiosyncratic and regional style would flourish into the twenty-first century, or that Louisiana’s Creoles would hold so tightly to their music, even as English became their dominant language and as their rural lifestyle slipped mostly into the past. Yet, at trail rides, rodeos, dance halls, church dances, and almost any celebration, zydeco is a rallying point of the culture, and if many zydeco musicians have enjoyed the opportunity to tour the world, the music is most vibrant at home.

Going Down the Bayou

Raymond Princess and the Frog

The zydeco song “Gonna Take You There” appears in the movie Princess and the Frog as Raymond the firefly is leading Tiana and Prince Naveen to see Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess that the pair hope can turn them human after both were transformed into frogs.

Ray calls out all of his “relationals” to help guide them, introducing his enormous extended family over the course of the song. The lyrics celebrate family and community, declaring: 

We all gon’ pool together, down here that’s how we do

Me for them, and them for me, we all be there for you

Ray, as everyone calls him, is Cajun. The term refers to the descendants of Acadians who moved from French Canada to Louisiana, settling along the bayous. An article about Cajun culture by the National Park Service states, “Many lived in the bayou country where they hunted, fished, trapped, and lived off the bounty of the Mississippi River delta. Some moved beyond the Atchafalaya Basin onto southwest Louisiana’s prairies to raise cattle and rice. The new arrivals learned new skills and shared what they brought with them with the many peoples already in the area: American Indians, free people of color, enslaved Africans and their descendants, and immigrants from Europe, Asia, and North and South America.”

Ray’s love interest in the movie, a distant star glimmering in the night sky, is named Evangeline, hinting at another key element of Cajun culture. In 1847, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie”. According to the Historic New Orleans Collection, “A tragic heroine, Evangeline proved to be the perfect symbol for the Acadians’ perseverance in the face of their history of misfortune and displacement.” 

We’ll dig more into the Evangeline story in a future post about the song “Ma Belle Evangeline”, but for the time being it’s enough to know that basic connection and symbolism. Ray (and his longing for Evangeline) functions almost as the soul of the movie, continually encouraging Tiana to persevere and trust her heart, and nudging Naveen toward the growth he needs to experience.

That said, the character was not without its critics. Prior to the movie’s release, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), voiced objections to what they viewed as its stereotypical depiction of Cajun people. In their eyes, Ray, with his missing teeth and questionable intelligence, played on a common trope. Warren Perrin, President of CODOFIL, stated, “It’s a continuation of the stereotyping of Cajun people, which is inaccurate… It has been done in so many movies over so much time, people think that’s the way we are — and it’s just wrong. I can list several other movies where they have portrayed us as backward, toothless, illiterate people…”

Ray’s was provided by Jim Cummings, one of the great voice actors in animation history. Along with Ray, Cummings has performed as a plethora of beloved Disney characters, such as Winnie-The-Pooh, Darkwing Duck, Tigger, Bonkers D. Bobcat, the Cheshire Cat, Ed the Hyena, and Humphrey the Bear to name just a few. 

Prior to the movie’s release, Cummings raved that Ray was a new favorite and one whom he felt immediately comfortable voicing, given his time living in New Orleans, a city he thinks of as his second hometown. 

Speaking to Toon Zone in 2009, Cummings said, “I was born in Ohio, but I moved to New Orleans when I was about 18, in 1972. I got a job on a riverboat… many of them, for that matter, and on any number of these boats I was the only one for whom English was their first language, but yet they were all born in Louisiana. So I was really immersed in the Cajun culture.” 

Cummings performs the song with the help of zydeco musician and educator Terrance Simien. In addition to recording several albums–such as Zydeco on the Bayou, There’s Room for Us All, and Across the Parish Line–Simien is responsible for a live show called “Creole for Kidz & The History of Zydeco”, which lead to his association with Disney. 

On Simien’s webpage, Simien released a statement in honor of the film’s 5-year anniversary, reflecting on how the movie was a “game-changer” for zydeco music, crediting with “kind of Stealing the show.” 

In addition to the joy of bringing the genre to a blockbuster film, Simien viewed it as a great educational experience, later stating, “…it helped further our own mission to teach our student audiences about black roots music in ways we can never really measure – it’s been massive and opened doors to schools who would never have known what zydeco was, let alone hear the word or see an image of an accordion and a bug playing its rigged underbelly like a rubboard!”

Recommended Listening

Song: Les Blues de Voyage

Artist: Amédé Ardoin & Dennis McGee

Released: 1934

The Ardoin and McGee recordings are vital to understanding the roots of zydeco, bringing together Creole and Cajun musical styles. While McGee would live to be 96 years old, continuing to perform until shortly before his death, Ardoin would die at the age of 44 after sustaining massive injuries in a racially motivated assault. McGee would affectionately refer to Ardoin as, “une chanson vivant,” a living song.

Song: Paper In My Shoe

Artist: Boozoo Chavis

Released: 1954

Credited as the first true zydeco recording, Paper in My Shoe was Boozoo Chavis backed by Classie Ballou’s band, which did not know how to play the style. Listening to the track, this becomes obvious when you notice that Chavis and the band are not performing in the same key. As the recording session floundered, someone decided to give Chavis some booze, which helped loosen things up. According to record producer Eddie Schuler, “Suddenly there was a colossal crash in the studio, but as the take was the best so far I didn’t check what had happened until the number was finished.  When I opened the door there, before me, lay Boozoo.  He had fallen off his stool but managed to keep his accordion in the air and play on without missing a note…Afterwards I played the tapes back to see if there was anything there worth all the trouble and expense.  The number where Boozoo fell on the floor was still the best, so I thought I would edit it and then release it as a feeler to test public reaction.  The song was “Paper In My Shoe” and it was just one of those natural hits that seldom come along.”

Song: Ay-Tete Fi (Hey, Little Girl)

Artist: Clifton Chenier

Released: 1955

The first major hit for the man who would bring zydeco to prominence, Ay-Tete Fi was originally a composition by Henry Roland Byrd, better known by his performing name Professor Longhair. Chenier was also the first Creole to receive a Grammy award, and his playing style has influenced musicians such as Stanley Dural, Jr., better known as accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco. Chenier’s album Bogalusa Boogie became the first zydeco record to receive a 5-star review in Rolling Stone, and in 2016 it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.” 

Song: Walking to New Orleans

Artist: Buckwheat Zydeco 

Released: 1985

Though he was not originally a fan of traditional zydeco, he joined Clifton Chenier’s band as an organist in 1976 and quickly fell in love with the music. Speaking of the experience he said, “Everywhere, people young and old just loved zydeco music. I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton. We played for four hours and I wasn’t ready to quit.” Two years later, he began playing the accordion and then formed his own band, releasing their debut album in 1979. Over the course of his career, he earned five Grammy nominations and one win (for his 2009 album Lay Your Burden Down). “Walking to New Orleans” is his take on the classic Fats Domino song written by Bobby Charles. While the original has a slightly melancholy feel to it, in Buckwheat Zydeco’s performance it becomes a laid back, joyous love letter to the city. 

Mickey Mouse Disco

Mickey Mouse Disco

In 2019, D23–the official Disney fan club–hosted Mickey Mouse’s Roller Disco Party at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale, California.  Guests were invited to put on their boogie shoes (or roller skates in this case) and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the album Mickey Mouse Disco.

Mickey and Minnie were there wearing their grooviest threads, posing for photographs, and showing off their best moves alongside the “Outta Sight Skaters”. 

Mickey Mouse Disco

A similar event, called Mickey’s Disco Night, was held a month later at San Diego Comic-Con. The party took place at the House of Blues and lasted from 8 p.m. to Midnight. The official description proclaimed, “No platform shoes are too high and no jumpsuit is too sparkly for this night of funky fun!”

It was a brilliant night, and one that I’ll forever be disappointed to have missed, but Disney and Disco fans alike might be wondering: How exactly did we get here?  

You Should Be Dancing

Studio 54

Pinning down the exact origins of disco is a tricky endeavor. The genre, popularly associated with the 1970s, traces back to the 60s. In “Boogie Nights: An Oral History of Disco”, Lisa Robinson writes, “Some say the dance-club scene started in the 1960s in New York City, with discotheques…Some say the 1960s Parisian club scene…But most agree that none of this really mattered until the early 1970s, when gay underground dance clubs in New York…spawned a disco culture…”

Philly Soul, born of Philadelphia International Records, is often referred to as a sort of bridge between the world of Motown and disco, highlighting the genre’s strong ties to Black music and history. The Latin musicians of New York City also played a role in its development. A 1979 article in the New York Times noted, “During the late 1960s and early 70s, numbers of young Latinos in New York began doing Latin‐style ballroom dance steps to black soul music. During the next few years, they transformed what had been the cha‐cha into the Latin hustle, and as they mixed more freely with young blacks on dance floors, Latin and black dance music began borrowing more intensively from each other.”

David Mancuso played a huge role in the growing disco culture with his “by invitation only parties” which he held at The Loft (quite literally his loft in Manhattan). The evenings started as a simple means to make ends meet. As noted in an NPR article, Mancuso needed money to pay the rent and so he hosted, “A rent party, in the tradition of Great Migration-era Harlem sessions that involved music, dancing, and a donation to help the host make that month’s ends meet…”

David Mancuso

Subsequent parties followed with Manusco serving as the “musical host” (apparently he was not fond of the term DJ). Other clubs, like 10th Floor, opened as the disco craze grew. Eventually, such legendary venues as Studio 54 and Paradise Garage were established.

Tom Moulton was another key figure in the development of disco, a record producer who introduced the 12” inch single (a happy accident when his pressing plant ran out of smaller acetates). Because there was only one track per side, the 12” allowed the grooves on the record to be larger. Add that to the fact that they were spun at the same speed as 45s, and you had a recipe for louder records, ideal for a club environment. They also facilitated the low end (bass, kick drum, etc.) to be more prominent, making them perfect for dancing. 

The 12” single was not the only major contribution he made to the disco scene. A former model, he discovered Fire Island in New York (known for its all-night dance parties) in 1971. According to an article in The Guardian he, “hatched a plan to eliminate the awkward gap (and dancefloor exodus) between songs. Using a tape machine, he spent two weeks threading up-tempo soul and R&B into the first continuous mix.” 

He gave the world the disco break, a technique where portions of a song would drop out completely for a time. According to Moulton, these segments, “hang you off a cliff with a bungee cable. You almost hit the bottom and then you bounce back up.”

Artists like Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band, Earth, Wind, and Fire, the Village People, Kool and the Gang, Candi Staton, and Grace Jones were a just few of the shining stars of the scene, alongside people like composer and producer Giorgio Moroder. The genre also elevated the DJ to the role of superstar.

Earth Wind and Fire

By 1976, there were reportedly 10,000 discos in the United States alone. That number would double by 1979. In 1977, the movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, brought the movement to the silver screen. Its soundtrack, primarily featuring music by the Bee Gees (with songs like “You Should Be Dancing”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than a Woman”, and others) would sell over 40,000,000 copies. 

In 1978, a disco song occupied the number one spot in America for 37 weeks. The music dominated the charts through the beginning of the following year as well. The wave of disco popularity was at its peak. Unfortunately, it was about to come crashing back to earth.  

Disco Demolition

Disco Demolition Night

In many ways, Disney’s decision to cash in on the disco movement came too late. The year 1979 saw the birth of the “Disco Sucks” movement, spearheaded by DJ Steve Dahl. He printed out “Kill Disco” membership cards, and held “anti-disco” rallies. On the radio, he would drag the needle over disco records and then play sound bytes of explosions. 

Anti-disco sentiment was spreading across the country. Small-scale events took place in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, with one featuring a DJ destroying a stack of disco records with a chain saw. 

Steve Dahl

The climax of the movement took place July 12, when Dahl hosted a “Disco Demolition” night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Fans who brought a disco album were admitted to a doubleheader for a mere $.98. Some 50,000 people attended (30,000more than anticipated). Between games, Dahl went on the field, where records were piled up, and declared, “This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood.” He then proceeded to destroy them by detonating dynamite, which also blew a hole in the outfield. 

Far from being the climax, the explosion precipitated a full-on riot, with fans storming the field. They climbed foul poles, set fires, and ripped up the turf. Batting cages were destroyed and people danced around the burning records. Riot police eventually arrived, bringing an end to the chaos. 

Disco Demolition Night

The field was so damaged that the second game was initially postponed, and later forfeited by the White Sox. 

Both historians and musicians have attempted to analyze the impetus behind the movement, with many concluding that it was a backlash fueled by racism and homophobia. 

Discussing it in a 2010 Vanity Fair article, Fran Lebowitz stated, “ ‘Disco Sucks’ was a kind of panic on the part of straight white guys. Disco was basically black music, rock ‘n’ roll was basically white: those guys felt displaced.”

Discussing the rise of the 12” single and its impact on hip-hop and disco, legendary musician and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne noted that, while some of the anger may have stemmed from traditional musicians being supplanted in the new genre, there was also an undercurrent of culture war involved, writing, “The reasons largely have to do with race and homophobia–many of the most popular dance clubs were black, gay, or both.”

For his part, Dahl denied any kind of bigotry was involved in the protest, stating, “The worst thing is people calling Disco Demolition homophobic or racist. It just wasn’t … We weren’t thinking like that…We were just disenfranchised, 24-year-old males.” In another instance, he said, “I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe. The event was not anti-racist, not anti-gay … we were just kids pissing on a musical genre.”

Mark W. Anderson, a political journalist who attended the Disco Demolition at age 15, disagreed. He wrote, “Rock music, and the lifestyle and values that went with it, was under attack from an alien music and culture popular with black folks and, occasionally, gays…The chance to yell “disco sucks” meant more than simply a musical style choice…it was a chance for a whole lot of people to say they didn’t like the way the world was changing around them, or who they saw as the potential victors in a cultural and demographic war.”

Gloria Gaynor, whose “I Will Survive” was one of disco’s biggest hits, suggested that economics factored into the hysteria when she said, “This had to be a movement started by somebody who got a mob mentality going and whose livelihood was being affected by the popularity of disco music.”

For his part, Harry Wayne Casey (frontman of KC and the Sunshine Band) has a much simpler explanation for Dahl’s behavior, stating, “I just figured the guy was an idiot.”

Whatever the underlying cause, many see it as the end of the disco era. Curiously, the very same month that the Disco Demolition took place, Disney released Mickey Mouse Disco.

“A Macho Guy with Clark Gable Ears” 

Mickey Mouse Disco

That’s how Mickey Mouse is described in the album’s opening song and its title track. The lyrics go on to proclaim:

When his body’s set in motion

The ladies cry a thousand tears.

Let the dancin’ fever move him

And he’ll always bring down the house–

Disco Mickey Mouse. 

There were nine tracks total on the album: 

  1. Mickey Mouse Disco
  2.  Welcome to Rio 
  3. The Greatest Band 
  4. Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah
  5.  Macho Duck
  6.  Mousetrap
  7.  Watch Out for Goofy!
  8.  It’s a Small World
  9.  Chim Chim Cher-Ee

The album was produced by Jymn Magon and recorded at Audio Media Recording Studios in Nashville. Arrangements on the album were, with the exception of “It’s a Small World”, made by Dennis Burnside, a musician and composer who had worked with the U.S. Army Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Levon Helm, and Garth Brooks, among others. 

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the music on the album, but it’s consistently fun from beginning to end. Tracks like “Mickey Mouse Disco” and “Macho Duck” (a clever parody of the Village People’s Macho Man) are the standouts, but every track is danceable. Beyond the mere novelty of the concept, the music is solid. It’s silly, but that’s part of what makes it work. Camp has always been part of disco. After all, it’s the genre that gave us the Village People. 

Given the timing of the release, the album seems as though it should have been destined for failure. The disco craze was over. Even Studio 54 closed, with owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, heading to prison for tax evasion. Satin shirts, polyester, and platform shoes would soon be replaced by shoulder pads, spandex, and ripped jeans.    

Despite this fact, Mickey Mouse Disco went on to become a smashing success. Just how popular did it become? The album reached #35 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart and was certified double platinum, meaning it sold over 2,000,000 copies, the first children’s album to ever reach such lofty sales. 

On its initial release, sales were modest. That’s when Disney executives had an idea: take the music to television. An ad was created for the record. In it, classic Mickey Mouse shorts were “remixed” with the music from the album. A toll-free number appeared on screen, so viewers could call and order a copy. It ran over and over, and the money started flowing in.

 By 1980, Mickey Mouse Disco was certified gold (selling 500,000 copies). Within four years, it had sold four times that number. The record was so popular that tie-in merchandise, such as lunchboxes and posters, was created. The book “Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records” notes that enormous billboards were made to continue promoting Mickey Mouse Disco, and placed in locations like Sunset Boulevard. The album became so popular that Disney, “no longer had to depend solely on Disney films for their material, and the money generated…gave them the clout to pursue further original album concepts.”

While this brilliant marketing is clearly responsible for much of the album’s success, I suspect that the fun inherent in disco music played a role as well. As Gloria Gaynor says, “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music. There’s no better music for a party—it helps you get rid of the stresses of the day.”

Recommended Listening:

Album: Saturday Night Fever

Release Date: 1977

Notes: A relative latecomer to the scene, the album still remains one of the definitive symbols of the movement. Along with a whole host of classics by the Bee Gees, it featured songs like “Open Sesame” by Kool & the Gang, “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band, and “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps.

Album: Soul Makossa (12” single)

Artist: Manu Dibango

Release Date: 1972

Notes: Originally released as the B-side to Cameroon saxophonist Manu Dibango’s “Hymne de la 8e Coupe d’Afrique des Nations”, the song was discovered by David Mancuso, who began playing it at The Loft. Its popularity quickly spread, eventually leading it to reach #35 on the US Billboard Hot 100. 

Album: Bad Girls

Artist: Donna Summer

Release Date: 1979

Notes: While the album came near the end of the era, Summer had already firmly established herself as the “Queen of Disco” with albums like “Love to Love You Baby”. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, “Bad Girls” was a massive success, and is responsible for mega-hits “Bad Girls”, “Dim All the Lights”, and “Hot Stuff”. Other singles from the album were “Sunset People”, “Our Love”, and “Walk Away”. 

Album: From Here To Eternity

Artist: Giorgio Moroder

Release Date: 1977

Notes: Moroder is often referred to as “The Father of Disco”. He won Academy Awards for Best Original Score for the movie Midnight Express, “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, and “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara. He has worked with artists like Blondie, David Bowie, Janet Jackson, and Kylie Minogue. His album “From Here To Eternity” is a dance and electronic music classic, which Pitchfork magazine listed as one of the 100 Best Albums of the 1970s.