Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives, a prominent folk singer and Academy Award-winning actor, is born on this day in 1909 near Hunt City, Illinois.
To almost anyone born in the 1950s or later, the singer Burl Ives is best known for his voiceover work as the jovial Sam the Snowman in the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But Ives’s “Holly Jolly Christmas” phase came relatively late in a very long and interesting career during which he helped to both usher in the folk-music revival of the 1940s and 50s and undermine it during the height of the anti-Communist Red Scare.
Asked about the beginning of his interest in music, Burl Ives once said, “There wasn’t any beginning.” He was surrounded from birth by a large, music-loving family and he began singing in public for loose change at the age four. With a massive library of Scots-Irish folk ballads in his head and no further interest in pursuing his formal education, Ives quit college in 1929 to become an itinerant banjo-playing folk singer. In 1937, having visited and performed in 46 of the 48 United States, Ives went to New York City, where he would become an important part of the budding folk-revival movement.
In New York, Ives fell in with a group of folk and blues musicians that included Pete Seeger, Josh White, Alan Lomax and Lead Belly, often performing in union halls and at benefits for everything from Spanish Civil War refugees to Kentucky coal miners and Alabama sharecroppers. The leftist politics that went hand-in-hand with the early folk revival, however, would come back to haunt Ives a decade later, when he was named in 1950 as a Communist sympathizer in the infamous Red Channels list along with Seeger, White, Lomax and others from the folk scene.
By this time, Ives was an established recording star, best-known for popularizing songs like “Blue Tail Fly” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and for more than a dozen popular albums of traditional folk songs, children’s songs and hymns on both the Columbia and Decca record labels. He would go on to record and release many more successful albums, to publish several canonical books of collected folk songs and to earn acclaim as an actor on Broadway, where he originated the role of Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and in Hollywood, where he reprised that role on film and also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role opposite Gregory Peck in 1958’s The Big Country.
None of his success in the 1950s and beyond would have been possible, however, had Ives not chosen to cooperate with and “name names” to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. While others named by Red Channels would lose their livelihoods to the anti-Communist blacklist—Pete Seeger, most prominently—Ives would repudiate his early connections to the Communist Party while naming several associates from the 1930s New York folk scene as Communist sympathizers.