Burl Ives was born in 1909 near Hunt City, an unincorporated town in Jasper County, Illinois near Newton, Illinois, to Levi “Frank” Ives (1880–1947) and Cordelia “Dellie” (née White) (1882–1954). He had six siblings: Audry, Artie, Clarence, Argola, Lillburn, and Norma. His father was at first a farmer and then a contractor for the county and others. One day Ives was singing in the garden with his mother, and his uncle overheard them. He invited his nephew to sing at the old soldiers’ reunion in Hunt City. The boy performed a rendition of the folk ballad “Barbara Allen” and impressed both his uncle and the audience.
Burl Ives had a long-standing relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. He was a Lone Scout before that group merged with the Boy Scouts of America in 1924. The collection of his papers at the New York Library for the Performing Arts includes a photograph of Ives being “inducted” into the Boy Scouts in 1966. Burl Ives received the organization’s Silver Buffalo Award, its highest honor. The certificate for the award is hanging on the wall of the Scouting Museum in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Ives often performed at the quadrennial Boy Scouts of America jamboree, including the 1981 jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, where he shared the stage with the Oak Ridge Boys. There is a 1977 sound recording of Ives being interviewed by Boy Scouts at the National Jamboree at Moraine State Park, Pennsylvania; on this tape he also sings and talks about Scouting, teaching, etc. Ives is also the narrator of a 28-minute film about the 1977 National Jamboree. In the film, which was produced by the Boy Scouts of America, Ives “shows the many ways in which Scouting provides opportunities for young people to develop character and expand their horizons.”
From 1927 to 1929, Burl Ives attended Eastern Illinois State Teachers College (now Eastern Illinois University) in Charleston, Illinois, where he played football. During his junior year, he was sitting in English class, listening to a lecture on Beowulf, when he suddenly realized he was wasting his time. As he walked out the door, the professor made a snide remark, and Ives slammed the door behind him. Sixty years later, the school named a building after its most famous dropout. Ives was also involved in Freemasonry from 1927 onward.
On July 23, 1929 in Richmond, Indiana, Ives did a trial recording of “Behind the Clouds” for the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett label, but the recording was rejected and destroyed a few weeks later. In later years, Ives did not recall having made the Record.
Burl Ives traveled about the U.S. as an itinerant singer during the early 1930s, earning his way by doing odd jobs and playing his banjo. He was jailed in Mona, Utah, for vagrancy and for singing “Foggy, Foggy Dew,” which the authorities decided was a bawdy song. Around 1931 he began performing on WBOW radio in Terre Haute, Indiana. He also went back to school, attending classes at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University). During the late 1930s Ives also attended The Juilliard School in New York.
In 1940 Burl Ives began his own radio show, titled The Wayfaring Stranger after one of his ballads. Over the next decade, he popularized several traditional folk songs, such as “Foggy, Foggy Dew” (an English/Irish folk song), “Blue Tail Fly” (an old Civil War tune), and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (an old hobo song). He was also associated with the ‘Almanac Singers’ (Almanacs), a folk singing group which at different times included Woody Guthrie, Will Geer and Pete Seeger. The Almanacs were active in the American Peace Mobilization (APM), an anti-war group opposed to American entry into World War II and Franklin Roosevelt’s pro-Allied policies. They recorded such songs as ‘Get Out and Stay Out of War’ and ‘Franklin, Oh Franklin’.
In June 1941, promptly after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the APM re-organized itself into the pro-war American People’s Mobilization. Ives and the Almanacs re-recorded several of their songs to reflect the group’s new stance in favor of US entry into the war. Among them were ‘Dear Mr. President’ and ‘Reuben James’ (the name of a US destroyer sunk by the Germans before US entry into the war).
In early 1942, Ives was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent time first at Camp Dix, then at Camp Upton, where he joined the cast of Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army. He attained the rank of corporal. When the show went to Hollywood, he was transferred to the Army Air Force. He was discharged honorably, apparently for medical reasons, in September 1943. Between September and December 1943, Ives lived in California with actor Harry Morgan (who would later go on to play Officer Bill Gannon in the 1960s version of Jack Webb’s TV show Dragnet, and Colonel Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H). In December 1943, Ives went to New York City to work for CBS radio for $100 a week.
On December 6, 1945, Burl Ives married 29-year-old script writer Helen Peck Ehrlich. Their son Alexander was born in 1949.
In 1945 Ives was cast as a singing cowboy in the film Smoky (1945).
In 1947, Ives recorded one of many versions of “The Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn)”, but paired this time with the incredibly popular Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne). Only Bing Crosby sold more Decca Records than the sisters in the 1940s. The flip side of the record would be a fast-paced “I’m Goin’ Down the Road”. Ives hoped that the trio’s success would help the record sell well, and indeed it did, becoming both a best-selling disc and a Billboard hit.
His version of the 17th century English song “Lavender Blue” became his first hit and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for its use in the 1949 film, So Dear to My Heart.
Burl Ives was identified in the 1950 pamphlet Red Channels and blacklisted as an entertainer with supposed Communist ties. In 1952 he cooperated with the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC) and agreed to testify. He stated that he was not a member of the Communist Party but that he had attended various union meetings with fellow folk singer Pete Seeger simply to stay in touch with working folk. He stated: “You know who my friends are; you will have to ask them if they are Communists.”
Ives’s statement to the HUAC ended his blacklisting, allowing him to continue acting in movies. But it also led to a bitter rift between Ives and many folk singers, including Seeger, who accused Ives of betraying them and the cause of cultural and political freedom in order to save his own career. Ives countered by saying he had simply stated what he had always believed. Forty-one years later, Ives reunited with Seeger during a benefit concert in New York City. They sang “Blue Tail Fly” together.
Ives expanded his appearances in films during this decade. His movie credits include the role of Sam the Sheriff of Salinas, CA, in East of Eden, “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Desire Under the Elms, Wind Across the Everglades, The Big Country, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; Ensign Pulver, the sequel to Mister Roberts; and Our Man in Havana, based on the Graham Greene novel.
In the 1960s Ives began singing country music with greater frequency. In 1962 he released three songs that were popular with both country music and popular music fans: “A Little Bitty Tear”, “Call Me Mister In-Between”, and “Funny Way of Laughing”.
Ives had several film and television roles during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1962 he starred with Rock Hudson in The Spiral Road, which was based on a novel of the same name by Jan de Hartog. In 1964, he played the genie in the movie The Brass Bottle with Tony Randall and Barbara Eden.
Burl Ives “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold” became Christmas standards after they were first featured in the 1964 CBS-TV presentation of the Rankin & Bass stop-motion animated family special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Johnny Marks had composed the title song (originally an enormous hit for singing cowboy Gene Autry) in 1949, and producers Rankin & Bass retained him to compose the TV special’s soundtrack. Ives voiced Sam the Snowman, and based the fair skinned, blonde haired girl “karen” in Frosty the Snowman on his niece Karyn E.Ives,the banjo-playing “host” and narrator of the story, explaining how Rudolph used his “nonconformity,” as Sam refers to it, to save Christmas from being cancelled due to an impassable blizzard. The following year, Ives re-recorded all three of these Johnny Marks hits, which Ives had sung in the TV special, but with a more “pop” feel than in the TV special. He released them all as singles for the 1965 holiday season, capitalizing on their previous successes.
Burl Ives performed in other television productions, including Pinocchio and Roots. He starred in two television series: O.K. Crackerby! (1965–66), which co-starred Hal Buckley, Joel Davison and Brooke Adams, and The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1969–72). O.K. Crackerby!, which was about the presumed richest man in the world, replaced Walter Brennan’s somewhat similar The Tycoon on the ABC schedule from the preceding year. Ives occasionally starred in macabre-themed productions. In 1970, for example, he played the title role in “The Man Who Wanted to Live Forever,” in which his character attempts to harvest human organs from unwilling donors. In 1972, he appeared as old man Doubleday in the episode “The Other Way Out” of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, in which his character seeks a gruesome revenge for the murder of his granddaughter.
Burl Ives and Helen Peck Ehrlich were divorced in February 1971. Ives then married Dorothy Koster Paul in London two months later. In their later years, Ives and Dorothy lived in a waterfront home in Anacortes, in the Puget Sound area, and in Galisteo, New Mexico, on the Turquoise Trail. In the 1960s, he had another home just south of Hope Town on Elbow Cay, a barrier island of the Abacos in the Bahamas.
In honor of Ives’s influence on American vocal music, on October 25, 1975, he was awarded the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. This award, initiated in 1964, was “established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year who has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression.”
Burl Ives lent his name and image to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s “This Land Is Your Land – Keep It Clean” campaign in the 1970s. He was portrayed with the program’s fictional spokesman, Johnny Horizon.
Burl Ives was seen regularly in television commercials for Luzianne tea for several years during the 1970s and 1980s when he was the company’s commercial spokesman.
Burl Ives was a renowned pipe smoker; the cover of his first album depicted a pipe and a fishing hat with the words “Burl Ives” in between. He also smoked cigars. In the summer of 1994 he was diagnosed with oral cancer after being hospitalized for back surgery. After several operations he decided against having further surgery. In April 1995 he fell into a coma. Ives died from complications of oral cancer on April 14, 1995 at the age of 85, at his home in Anacortes, Washington; he is interred in Mound Cemetery in Hunt City Township, Jasper County, Illinois