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

Pirates of the Caribbean

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

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

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

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

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

The Lyricist

X Atencio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Composer

George Bruns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Work of Genius

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

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

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

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

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

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.