I loved people gathering around a table when I was a child because it always meant there would be singing and fun. However, even though I first learned to sing listening to my parents (my mother and father loved to sing and were very good at it), my first and most important teacher in life and music was Burl Ives. I was about ten years old (living in the United States at the time with my parents and sister) when father brought home a Burl Ives record. It was an album of folk songs, some of which were humorous, others were sad, but that particular record was the one I have been listening to all my life. I never got tired of listening to Burl Ives’s warm voice and this particular record is still one of my favorites (Columbia Records: Album 3 – More Folk Songs).
When I was a child listening to his songs – it was a whole new wonderful world of sounds and emotions for me. It was from him that I learned the basics of singing, guitar playing and the principle I learned and applied all my life when making music: „less is more“. It is the way I feel about folk songs. After listening to his record I felt I wanted to sing too, and I was certain that I could do it. His simple accompaniments made me confident that I could play the guitar. I loved everything about the music he produced: his wonderful soothing and comforting voice, sad and happy at the same time, the wonderful choice of folk songs, and most important – all the songs were conveying important messages to me with the stories they were telling, the stories about many different fates and many different human emotions. To me the songs were similar to the fairy tales I loved reading at the time when I heard Burl Ives for the first time. They certainly developed my taste in folk music. My whole life from then onwards was in fact a journey in quest of beautiful folk songs I could sing and call my own because I could feel them as my own.
However, as I mentioned earlier, Burl Ives also taught me a lot about what I did not wish to do, and that too was connected with his music and the way he sang and arranged the songs later in life. It is quite the common thing that everything changes and if you expect things to remain the same, it is quite a disappointment when you realize that „the only thing that remains the same is – constant change“.
I am very sad that in general Burl Ives is not known and recognized today for his extensive repertoire of traditional folk songs and the hundreds of recordings he has made of songs he himself had collected in his early years of travelling all over America, accompanying himself on his guitar only, or for his writing, but is well known for his popular Christmas song albums, children’s songs, and even pop songs that were in the USA charts now and then.
Today with the wonders of the Internet it is great how much one can learn and how we can get extensive information on such a vast number of subjects. Of course, there are disadvantages because we will be served with a choice of information that is connected primarily with the popularity of something or someone, i.e. the number of „likes“, the financial success, and similar. For instance, if we try to learn about Burl Ives today via the Internet/YouTube, we will get the impression that he was mainly a pop style singer accompanied by orchestras, choirs, Christmas bells and similar sounds (as I mentioned earlier: of Christmas songs, children’s songs, spiritual songs). Only if we dig much deeper will we learn that he was a collector of folk songs alongside and even preceding the most famous ones such as Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger… He was tremendously popular in the Forties thanks to his radio show „Wayfaring Stranger“ on a New York based radio station, and he recorded many songs and many albums before that decade ended.
I was very much surprised when a couple of years ago my sister brought me a wonderful gift from the U.S.A. – The Burl Ives Song Book containing 115 songs from his repertoire with illustrations and short comments on the songs. A very interesting detail: the book was first published in 1953, the year I came to the States with my family. But the most surprising were the couple of sentences in Burl Ives’s „Introduction“:
„When (as a student of singing,) I discovered that there were many beautiful and exciting songs in the English language that nobody sang, they were looked down on as „folk“, I chose them for my own. They became my repertoire, I did not sing them because they were folk, but because I thought them musically beautiful and their content meaningful, either dramatically, lyrically, or humorously – always expressing a genuine human value.“
When I began singing professionally in 1993, those were „my“ exact words when explaining why I was singing forgotten folk songs coming from old song books. Of course, the songs in question were not in the English language but traditional Croatian folk songs. As I was 47 at the time when I began singing in public, it was a very strong impulse indeed that I needed in order to keep me going : singing and recording albums to date.
A couple of months ago I was talking to a friend of mine and she said: „Why don’t you record some of the songs you keep telling me about – the Burl Ives songs you learned so many years ago. You talk about him and the songs with so much love and respect“.
In the meantime my friend and I have developed an extensive project that is on its way to be presented in public. As a part of the project I will record not only the folk songs I loved as a child when living in the USA, but also some other folk songs coming from the countries I have lived in : Indonesia, Russia… Of course I have written some songs of my own and I will record them too in the most simple manner, : voice and guitar. Simple to record and simple to sing and play in company. Perhaps this could encourage some more people to sing and play folk songs. Maybe they will even be inspired to make their own songs. What a wonderful world it would be if there was more music in the air made by all of us, not only the „chosen ones“, the public figures, the stars. Music is magic that creates miracles, especially when we ourselves are the musicians.
Remembering Burl Ives – Songs I recorded recently (July 2014) : https://soundcloud.com/dunja-knebl
Update on December 20, 2014:
I recorded some of the songs I planned to record and they are published on Bandcamp: