Burl Ives, the beloved balladeer who sang so convincingly of being a Wayfaring Stranger that he instead became a longtime friend, died Friday.
The rotund folk singer, Academy Awardwinning actor and concert hall artist, whom poet Carl Sandberg once called “the mightiest ballad singer of this or any other century,” was 85 and had a history of circulatory problems and congestive heart failure.
He died at home, in Anacortes, Wash.
Ives’ wife, Dorothy, and three of their four children were with the troubadour who also popularized “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Foggy Foggy Dew” and “On Top of Old Smoky.”
Ives had his feet in several camps, including the Broadway stage and the Hollywood sound set, where he came to epitomize such Southern patriarchs as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a role he dismissed as “definitely not to type.”
For decades he had appeared throughout the country singing “Blue Tail Fly,” (with its beguiling chorus of “Jimmy Crack Corn (and I don’t care)” and “A Little Bitty Tear” to children who generally were enthusiastic about the music but unaware of the performer.
He was born Burle Icle Ivanhoe Ives to English-Irish tenant farmers in Illinois. Frank and Dellie Ives often sang to their son, acquainting him with music that sometimes traced its roots to the 1600s when the Ives clan first migrated to the New World seeking its fortune.
In the late 1930s, friends got him a part in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse” and his by now regular appearances at the Village Vanguard in New York City (soon to become a birthplace of the American folk movement) resulted in his own radio show where he became identified with “Bluetail Fly” and “Foggy Dew.” It was on that program that he first came to be associated with his solemn signature ballad, “The Wayfarin’ Stranger.”
After Army service in World War II he returned to New York, selling out Town Hall for a 1945 concert, and the following year, made the first of his successful pictures: “Smoky,” a classic horse saga.
He recorded dozens of ballads for Decca and Columbia which continued to re-issue them decades later and wrote “Wayfaring Stranger,” his autobiography. He also published several folk song collections and, in 1954, went back to Broadway for a revival of “Showboat” in which he was Cap’n Andy, skipper of that melodic Mississippi River paddler.
On March 24, 1955, Ives created the role of Big Daddy on Broadway, supposedly landing the part after director Elia Kazan watched him physically subdue a nightclub heckler who complained of Ives’ “sissy songs.” Kazan said he saw in Ives the commanding presence with its undertone of violence the role required. He also starred with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the 1958 film version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Taylor remembered him Friday as a “great talent who possessed this wonderful, teddybear-like warmth.”
In 1958, Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for “The Big Country,” a story of two families feuding over water rights, and was nominated for a Grammy award. Others followed : “A Little Bitty Tear” in 1961; “Funny Way of Laughin’ ” in 1962, “Chim Chim Cheree” in 1964 and the children’s album “America Sings” in 1974.
With the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary and others, he was seen regularly in concert or on national television.
He appeared in some TV series: “The Lawyers,” “O.K. Crackerby,” and the miniseries “Roots.”