Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Two

Devilish Mary (Traditional Song)
Zeke's ballad, about the beautiful woman he was married to for a mere three weeks, is a genuine folk song, the furthest the show stretches into the back catalog for inspiration. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this number is given to the Bear Rugs, who represent the sort of mountain minstrels who would've sung this song from town to town, both in appearance and variety of musical skills (Tennessee, instead of his whimsical homemade "thing", would played upright bass or, in some groups, sung from the prayer book). Zeke, especially with his original voice by Dal McKennon, seems to be the oldest bear in the show, and so would be a very tactile link back to the 20s and 30s heyday of Hillbilly music. In a show full of "uptown" Country tunes, the Five Bear Rugs are traditionalists.

It's not hard to find recordings of Devilish Mary. It's been played as a folk song, a rock tune, a square dance, and more. The lyrics (and the order of the verses) almost all differ from each other, especially in the gibberish section of the refrain which is sometimes sung "ring-a-ding-ding Mary" (which seems to fit well with her description as being sexually alluring) "ring-on-my-ding-on-my-derry", or  "rick-em-lick-em Mary", especially in the Western and Cowboy interpretations. There's no sure way of knowing exactly which version Davis and Bertino found in their research, although it's probably a good bet that its' lyric "every time I looked cross-eyed / she hit me on the head with the shevel" (hilariously commented on, deadpan, by Zed: "How sad") is what got it into the show as the representative of old-time Country. This version is by the Red Fox Chasers, and is easy enough to find online.

How Long Will My Baby Be Gone - Buck Owens - Sweet Rosie Jones - Capitol ST-2962 1968

Buck Owens was considered in the 60's to be a Country traditionalist. Beginning as a Rockabilly performer in the 50s, Owens' stripped down, guitar-driven tunes meet Rock and Roll halfway with their strong forward momentum. Owens also hosted TV's Hee Haw beginning in 1969, which almost certainly how Marc Davis and Al Bertino came to think of his music while assembling their Bear Band show.

Terrence, one of Davis' most inspired (and bizarre) creations for Country Bear Jamboree, is a sad-hearted mountain man, whose enormous height is only exaggerated by his pointed hat and his comically tiny guitar, which he strums furiously enough to outpace even Owens. Terrence is sometimes called "Shaker", especially for the publicity for the Disneyland version in 1972, as his primary mode of dancing is gyrating wildly. For the 1972 and 1983 figures in California and Tokyo, Terrence was re-engineered so that his hips and butt could move independently of his body, and was furthermore re staged in profile (instead of pointed straight out at the audience), which made the gag of his ludicrous dancing a little easier to understand. But for pure lunacy nothing matches Wathel Rogers and Bill Justice's programming of 1970-71, where Terrence shakes up the house by literally bobbing around on his tiny, stubby legs, so violently that the curtain behind him shakes. This action was so difficult to program and maintain that for many years the lower half of his body was simply turned off.

Terrence kicks off the second half of the show; he's out on stage seconds after "Devilish Mary" has finished and gets out his songs and his laughs in less than thirty seconds without any introduction at all: both a palette cleanser of sorts and the lynch pin for the furious later part of the Jamboree. His appearance and behavior is so strange, especially coming after the increasing weirdness of Liver Lips and Trixie, that the second part of the show develops an "anything goes" craziness. The audience settles in to see how outlandish the performers will become.

Owens contributed something else to Terrence besides his quick-fingered guitar: the drum beats in Owens' recording of "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?" likely inspired the bongo-drum fade out at the end of the number, memorably visually accompanied by the only "eyebrow duet" in the history of American theater.

All The Guys That Turn Me on Turn Me Down - The Stonemans - Dawn of the Stonemans Age - RCA Victor LSP-4264

The Sun Bonnets from the Sunshine State and their number "All the Guys That Turn Me On, Turn Me Down" is Country Bear Jamboree's pièce de résistance, the part that even those who can't stand the show enjoy. What could be a more essential musical number in the show? But it almost wasn't there are all; the little maids in blue were originally supposed to sing a very different song.

The track finally chosen was from the third of the Stonemans' best period in the late 60s, the awkwardly titled Dawn of the Stonemans Age. This is the record in which Roni, Patsy, Jimmy, Van and Donna began to experiment with a more eclectic sound, including this comedy duet for the family's youngest musical daughters. George Bruns' arrangement for the show is an interestingly honky-tonk take on the music. He also straightens out the rhythm a bit, making for a better song.

In the late 60s and early 70s and Stonemans, unable to find much work in Nashville's "uptown country" market, were extremely popular in California. I suspect that Bertino and Davis were having difficulty finding a song that properly matched their three Sun Bonnets before coming across both the song and the proper musicians for the job. Part of the trouble may have been that in this era the options in country music for women's songs was limited to songs about affairs or heartbreak, neither of which would've fit the character designs for Bunny, Bubbles and Beulah. Instead of making the three young girls sing about loss, budding desire thwarted probably seemed a better fit.

Did The Stoneman family get the job recording the music for Country Bear Jamboree as a result of this record? Because most of the Studio correspondence of the era has presumably been destroyed, we may never know. For all we can guess at, Davis and Bertino only looked at the record because the group was primarily female, a novelty for Country at the time. What they found was the sound of their show. Roni and Donna couldn't have guessed that their lighthearted little number would live on for decades, seen and heard by millions of people each year.

Davis' realization of the number as an Illustrated Song is ingenious. The Illustrated Song was a vaudeville invention, although movie theaters sometimes showed them too. The basic idea is that somebody stands up on stage and starts singing while hand-painted glass slides are projected through a magic lantern on the screen behind them. Here's a representative slide from 1907 that was reprinted for purchase as a postcard:

Although they hardly lasted into the 1920s, Illustrated Songs were sufficiently popular to cause at least one artist to make the leap from being a "model" for the glass slides into the motion picture: Fatty Arbuckle, one of the silent screen's funniest clowns, launched his career through the Illustrated Song market:

Starts Thursday! Blog

Besides the crazy characters and quick humor, one of the glories of Country Bear Jamboree is in its preservation of the spirit of Vaudeville, an art form that Davis would've remembered well from his youth which was largely dead by the 1960s (it evolved, in a way, into the television "variety show" - itself long gone). This is part of the show's claim to be a fragment of Americana, part of the tapestry of America that the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland offered to us. It's an all-inclusive portrait, including the snarky audience in the balcony (Melvyn, Buff and Max), the rapid pace of the numbers, and even the Illustrated Song. "All The Guys That Turn Me On, Turn Me Down" is the sole survival of the Illustrated Song in popular culture, and probably the most widely-seen example of all time.

If You Can't Bite, Don't Growl - Tommy Collins - The Dynamic Tommy Collins - Columbia CL-2510 1966

Tommy Collins, born Leonard Sipes, had a significant hit in 1966 with "If You Can't Bite, Don't Growl", a lively (if silly) romp of a song emerging, like Buck Owens, from the local sound of Bakersfield, California - a peculiar music movement that ended up influencing both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, one specializing in stripped-down rhythm.

The name of the song alone makes it a prime candidate for Country Bear Jamboree, but even more interesting is the bear designed for the tune, and here it's necessary for a bit of explanation for modern audiences.

Ernest plays a fiddle bearing his stage name "The Dude". "Dude" is used here in an obsolete meaning; it's not just a male or a cowboy, but a very specific and extremely colorful kind of dandy who began to appear in big cities in the East following the Civil Wars. Dudes wore high hats, big pantaloons, white gloves, spats and crazy-colored jackets and engaged in fashion wars to outdo each other. These urban peacocks were especially visible before the start of the Great War; although "Dude" continued to mean a dandy up until about the 1960s, the actual style was long gone by then. A Dude could also be a clueless city slicker; "Dude Ranches" were tourist lodgings intended for city folk from back East who wanted to see the Frontier.

 Ernest, with his tuft-feathered derby, neatly parted hair, and bow tie, revives the Edwardian Dude the same way the Sun Bonnets number revives the Illustrated Song. The joke is that he's a dandy city slicker (or at least trying to be one) stuck in this ludicrous Vaudeville show. And he has a fast paced, rather citified song to sing, one of the most recent and most popular of the fifteen represented. Yet Country Bear Jamboree is slightly out of time; from Henry's stovepipe hat, string tie and starched shirt bosom to the Victorian finery of the theater and the Vaudeville revival spirit indicate that we aren't in the present but somewhere indefinably in the past. We learn from the outside of the building that Grizzly Hall was erected in 1898 and from the proscenium arch that Founder Ursus H. Bear died in 1928; of course detail dates are just dates but if we take 1928 as the earliest possible fixed date of the show, then we may have our answer: Al Bertino and Marc Davis would've been in their mid-teens at the time. Grizzly Hall exists in some nostalgic recollection of the past, which may be one reason why putting Elvis costumes and camp t-shirts on the figures never worked well; it runs contrary to all of the other evidence presented by the show.

Heart, We Did All That We Could - Jean Shepard - Heart, We Did All That We Could - Capitol T-2690 1967

Teddi Barra is a complex Davis creation, consisting of an act that seems borrowed from famous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, a name that references silent screen sex goddess Theda Bara, and dialogue that quotes screen firebrand Mae West. Nesbit was a chorus girl who had an affair with a famous architect; one of their encounters involved a swing entwined with vines in a private room. Her husband shot the architect to death in Madison Square Garden, leading to an infamous and scandalous trial. Nesbit died in 1967 and was possibly on Davis' mind while he was drawing up Teddi. Nesbit also was the inspiration for the Gibson Girl, who was folded into the Disney theme park mythology in 1992 with the opening of Disneyland Paris.

Theda Bara, a silent screen sex goddess, was perhaps most famous for appearing onscreen in Cleopatra (1917) with as little on her as the movie industry would allow (hint: it's so little that even today it would raise eyebrows). Heavily promoted as an exotic mystery woman - her stage name "Bara" is "Arab" spelled backwards - Bara was likely remembered by Davis for her last name (one wondered if he and Bertino made lists of as many "bear" puns as they could think up). Most importantly, this is more evidence of Davis reaching into his childhood memory to produce an imaginative amalgam for the Bear Band show.

The third piece of the puzzle is Mae West, who handily replaced Bara as the silver screen's sex goddess once Bara retired in 1926. Mae West played bad women - thrillingly so, for audiences of the time. Her famous line "Why don't you come up and see me some time?" is actually from I'm No Angel (1934), but the movie everyone remembers it from is the previous year's She Done Him Wrong (1933), where she actually says "Why don't you come up some time and see me? I'm home every evening." In both films she plays a singer/dancer in a disreputable part of town, and even appears (in the same role) in a Frontierland-appropriate Western setting in 1940's My Little Chickadee, with W. C. Fields. The movie ends with Fields telling West: "Why don't you come up and see me some time?"

What we really see when everything is unpacked here is that Davis created his show-stopping show girl from a composite of three women spanning four decades, all quite unique but each piece contributing to the larger picture of a classic burlesque gal, unique but immediately understandable as a received image all at once. That's not bad for a fiberglass bear on a swing.

"Heart, We Did All That We Could" is another Nashville-style country standard sung by Jean Shepard, which charted quite high in 1966. Shepard was a pioneer female country vocalist in her era, but this is another case where the song is secondary to the bear performer and the iconic image. As of this writing, Shepard is apparently still in the Grand Ole Opry.

The Teddi Barra animatronic figure, by the way, is amongst MAPO's most ingenious creations: she sits on a static swing that's supported by the raising/lowering mechanism in the roof but is otherwise not animated; Teddi swings because in the hollow space inside her body is a pendulum that starts swinging back and forth to naturally power the figure. The pendulum is connected to a lever which activates her "foot kick" in appropriate rhythm. Like all of MAPO's best creations, it's mechanically elegant.

Blood on the Saddle - Tex Ritter - Blood on the Saddle - Capitol ST-1292 1960

Tex Ritter may not have been the definitive singing cowboy, but he lasted longer than most. Born 1905 in Texas, Woodward "Tex" Ritter was already an established radio and stage performer by the time he took the train out to Hollywood and ended up working for Grand National Films starting in 1936 in "Song of the Gringo".

The B Western, as unique an American invention as Disneyland, was unavoidable throughout the 30s and 40s before making the leap to television in the 50s and transmuting into the sort of series beloved my Marc Davis - Wagon Train and Gunsmoke. The reasons why B westerns were so numerous is complex, but even by the late 19th century when the West was still largely available to see, that time and place was transforming into the American equivalent of the England of Arthurian times - the national origin myth for a country still being born. But Hollywood, more than anything else, is what ensured that the Old West would stay forever young. Hollywood sits right on the edge of a desert, and it doesn't take much driving to find convincing Western locales, even today. Since Western stories are basically structured around encounters between civilization and wilderness, once you have your landscape you have most of the movie - from there it's just a matter of costumes and maybe a town set. And if you're planning on making a lot of Westerns, as studios like Grand National and Republic were, then all you really needed was one set to use again and again, plus costumes and actors. It was a low-cost, high-yield, low risk venture, and Hollywood was really really good at making them. The best B Westerns have an effortless companion-ability, artless they may be, and zip by in under an hour.

Tex Ritter made sixty of these shoestring spectaculars at a clip of about five a year between 1936 and 1945, ensuring his legacy and association with the Western even if he never made  a film most would describe as especially great. Most of Tex's westerns have him ride into town, sing a few songs, and maybe win the girl or defeat the baddies or find the gold - it's hard to differentiate when you're making a new movie every eight weeks. He sang Blood on the Saddle in 1937's Hittin' the Trail, his fifth film, and that film may be examined in detail at Archive.Org, having fallen into the public domain. It's a rare visual record of Tex singing a song that would come to be most closely associated with him.

Following the end of World War II and the impending dissolution of the Movie Studio system's monopoly on theater ownership - the arrangement that ensured that B Westerns had a ready market - Tex struck out on his own as a recording artist and sometimes actor. In 1952 he recorded his most enduring record for the film High Noon: "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling", and eventually was a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry after leaving Hollywood for Nashville.

Marc Davis had his attention drawn to "Blood on the Saddle" by Al Bertino, whose performance of the song sold Davis on the comedy possibilities of the number. If you watch Hittin' the Trail and Tex's performance of the song, you'll see the the nucleus of Big Al's ludicrous pitching and lurching as he sings, which presumably Bertino imitated as Big Al is a tribute to him. However, WED did wisely license the Capitol Records 1960 Tex Ritter recording of the song, which is by far the best.

Big Al's appearance in the show, with his miner's cap and vest and out of tune guitar, clearly six sheets to the wind on corn liquor, is still one of the high water marks of theme park comedy. As a composite character of Tex Ritter's voice and Al Bertino's face and gestures, there is one final component: Thurl Ravenscroft appears to provide Al's guttural laugh at the end of his number.
The Ballad of Davy Crockett - Walt Disney Records
Ole Slew Foot - Buck Owens and the Buckaroos - Ruby - Capitol ST-795

The Big Al character is the figure who starts to cycle the show back around towards Cowboy and Western music following its lengthy tour of Hillbilly, Blues and Country circa 1920-1970. Undeniably visually a character from the West, with his Western gear and Cowboy music, Big Al's linked identity with Tex Ritter, a cowboy star, is matched by another famous Western song: Disney's own The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

The Western, as an idea and style, has always flitted in and out of fashion, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the two songs chosen for Country Bear Jamboree represent two of the high points for the Western in the twentieth century: a 1930's Singing Cowboy and Davy Crockett, poster child for the 1950's cowboy craze. The singing of Davy Crockett is also an interestingly self-reflexive moment, stretching back to 1954 and 1955, as the original Disney serial was produced as part of the Disneyland television series which sparked a merchandising bonanza worth millions of dollars. Disneyland, the TV show, raised awareness for Disneyland, the place, but helped fund it, too, and Davy Crockett was on hand to open Frontierland in July 1955. In a very different Frontierland in a very different place, in a show orchestrated by George Bruns, composer of the original tune, Henry's singing of the ballad seems to embrace the history of the past and the future all at once, linking Country Bear Jamboree with Walt Disney even while it moves forward with ideas he initiated. And, as of 1971, it was just old enough to count as nostalgic for most audience members.

As an in-house production, there's little need to provide "the" inspirational version of Davy Crockett here, but this version sung by Fess Parker is, I think, especially good:

It's also an interesting use of a Disney icon almost as recognizable as the Mouseketeer ears: the coon skin cap, which is one of the most interesting jokes in the show. At first blush, it looks to be a rare example of hat-on-hat comedy, another Marc Davis special, because what's funnier than somebody wearing a lot of hats on their head? But then we're fooled: the coon skin cap is a real raccoon (somehow), who then sings a duet, a compound joke that always gets a laugh. Hat comedy is a strange subset of humor, and Country Bear Jamboree has a lot of it: from Terrence's weird peaked cap to the Sun Bonnets' bonnets and Henry's stovepipe,  Davis' jokes constantly play up the incongruity of bears wearing people clothes to great effect.

Henry (and Sammy) don't get far into their song before they're interrupted by the irrational return of Big Al, which leads to the final number, another one certainly chosen almost entirely for being a song about a bear: Ole Slew Foot.

Ole Slew Foot is one of those songs that's been recorded by everybody, but the singer who owned that song was Johnny Horton, in 1962. Horton was a Rockabilly singer and in fact he recorded Ole Slew Foot in two versions - a country version and a rock version - and most subsequent performers actually imitate Horton's memorable vocal performance in their own versions. Horton is most famous for his 1959 "The Battle of New Orleans", which you've almost certainly heard, even if you don't know if you have.

Knowing this, it's unlikely we'll ever find out exactly which version of Ole Slew Foot Davis and Bertino heard, so I've included one which sounds very close to the version Bruns and The Stonemans performed for the show, by Buck Owens in 1971.

Big Al's "defeat" at the end of the show has been confusing audiences for several decades now. In 1991, when the original Bear Band show returned for Walt Disney World's 20th anniversary, many of the original programming profiles were updated to match the modern refurbishment and parts the Bear figures were given. At this point, the Big Al figure had a feature disabled in which he would lean back rather far while singing the word "blood", with the idea being that at the end of the show he simply falls backwards off the box he's sitting on, through the rear curtain, and off the stage (did we mention that he's drunk?). To accentuate this gag, air canons situated above the figure inside the proscenium arch would activate, making the curtain visibly shake as he crashes through.

You can see this in the 1971 "Grand Opening of Walt Disney World" and some early videos of the show. The 2012 refurbishment brought back the air canons but not the lean. To modern audiences, Big Al's ultimate fate remains a mystery.

To match Bear Band Serenade, as audiences leave Henry, Sammy, Melvyn, Buff and Max sing another new Bruns song"Come Again", a trick borrowed from the Enchanted Tiki Room to make the show exit lively. The LP release of Country Bear Jamboree lists the track as "Come Again / Come On In", with "Come On In" being the version of the song heard in Mile Long Bar as guests exit, never publicly released.

Mile Long Bar, as probably needs to be explained at this late stage, was part of a Frontierland complex sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay consisting of Country Bear Jamboree, the Bar, and Pecos Bill Cafe - a sort of Pepsi empire in the West to rival Coca-Cola's domination of the Tomorrowland Terrace in the East. The two beverages continued to be available alongside each other at The Magic Kingdom until 1982, when Coke picked up sponsorship of American Adventure and negotiated the exclusivity rights they still maintain.

Mile Long Bar was very much the partner facility to Bear Band, and upon exiting into the snack stand, guests would find themselves looking at another set of Melvyn, Buff and Max mounted heads, this time singing "Come On In" to the exiting crowds. The Stonemans also contributed perhaps a dozen additional tracks, some of which ended up on the Country Bear Jamboree LP. The full set played inside Mile Long Bar, at the Mile Long Bar that opened in Disneyland in 1972, and continue to play today at the Hungry Bear Restaurant at Disneyland. Some of these tunes also ended up in the Frontierland area music from 1971-1991.

Home Sweet Home; A Personal Reflection

I was something of a late comer to Country Bear Jamboree. It was a show I saw going to Walt Disney World as a kid, but it was never something my parents and I considered to be especially important or something we'd see repeatedly. I probably saw Country Bear Jamboree more often as part of my souvenir VHS video than in person. The things I remember most clearly from those early trips were the Sunbonnets and their lament, and thinking that exiting into the Mile Long Bar and seeing Melvyn, Buff and Max still in there singing was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

Aside from that, I didn't have much personal connection beyond a few viewings here or there. It wasn't until I moved to Orlando in 2003, and more specifically began to work for Walt Disney World, that I began to become more familiar with the show. Even then, I didn't really "get" it, although I knew I liked it well enough and didn't really know why. My interests in college, however, began to shift, and the more I found out about folk music, about vaudeville, about Tex Ritter, and began to experience the American mythology of its own past, the more deeply the show affected me. It wasn't until 2005, however, that the full brilliance of Country Bear Jamboree became apparent to me. As Shane at Parkeology points out, you need at least a dozen viewings. It just clicked one day, one viewing, and I've never looked back.

I became an addict. I'd see the show several times a day, and listen to the soundtrack incessantly. When I started this blog I had no real ideas about what to put on it besides photographs and some appreciations of the design of the various areas of the Magic Kingdom. It wasn't until my second month of writing that I combined my obsessions with structuralism and Country Bear Jamboree into one, put together "Two Shows by Marc Davis" and really hit on the appropriate combination of analysis, history, and speculation that continues here to this day. I owe much of my subsequent development as a writer to my desire to get inside the complexities of Marc Davis' Bear Band show.

There are worlds of things to unpack in Country Bear Jamboree, whether that be confining ourselves to the worlds of design, or of pace, or music, or even animation - each bear has unique little ticks and mannerisms, and each one of them becomes funnier the more you pay attention to them. I've tried to demonstrate some of its surprising depth in this article.

In this way, the show has almost never been the domain of vacationers, but locals, long time devotees and obsessives. Most of the people in Grizzly Hall at one point or another have been there before, and they comply with the rituals of the show - clapping and stomping, applause, or catcalls during Teddi Barra's number - and the tourists on board are swept up in a community experience. Country Bear Jamboree had the sort of relationship with its audience that the Enchanted Tiki Room enjoys in California - the community celebration of the ritualistic where everybody knows the words.

Something strange happens when you've had a Disney attraction in your life for a long time. Your relationship to it mutates until you can't even remember what it was like through fresh eyes, but it also deepens and takes of strange dimensions and unconscious connections. This is easy enough to find evidence of on the Internet, never mind this very blog here, but it's a very old phenomenon. One of the earliest examples I've found comes from the pen of Edward Prizer, who documented the construction of Walt Disney World for five years in Orlandoland Magazine before he wrote this in November 1971, when the paint was barely still dry on the hallowed planks of Grizzly Hall:
"By this time, I thought, I'd have formed my views on the individual attractions and be able to list them in order of preference. Instead, I find this becoming a virtually impossible task. First time around, I picked It's A Small World. This twisting voyage down a cavern filled with music and singing, dancing dolls and outbursts of color left me strangely exhilarated. The impact was directly to the senses, a hypo straight into the blood stream, turning you on like a neon sign.

On the second visit, however, I realized that the choice could not be made so simply. The Country Bear Jamboree was even funnier than before, and the ingenuity of it even more apparent. The Hall of Presidents, too, affected me more strongly the second time around. I listened more carefully to the narration and found it to be a prose poem of tremendous sweep and grandeur. I caught new meaning in the words of Lincoln. Suddenly I realized that he was uttering a message directed at the condition of our nation today... "If this nation is ever to be destroyed, it will come from within."

The Mickey Mouse Revue builds up to a rousing climax, all of the separate characters, after their individual performances, joining in the grand finale. You have to come back again and again, to experience the full impact of it.

The Haunted Mansion is the craziest thing I've ever seen. I've only seen it through once and can't render a final judgement. But I think of all it must be regarded as a thing of beauty evoking the images of Edgar Allan Poe with a whimsical twist. This is the kind of ambiguity that lifts imagery to the level of art. Most people, I know, won't see it in that perspective."
By January 1973, Prizer was writing of the best descriptions of what was not yet called the "Annual Passholder culture":
"And still we keep going back, after all this time, when anyone would think that the charisma should have been worn down to the bones... all the sights seen, all the surprises exhausted, all the thrills quenched. Perhaps somewhere down inside there's a stubborn streak of childlike wonder that won't let go after the onslaught of 50 years.

So there we were, on a Sunday afternoon, driving again out to Walt Disney World for some more. After all this time, there was still that inexplicable pull that kept insisting: put it all aside and to hell with all the stuff you ought to be doing. Forget it. The Magic Kingdom is just down the road.

Surely, I think, it's like old songs now, that are never too old and faded to listen to again. Or old wine that is even better each time revisited.

We ride down Main Street in the horse-drawn street car, plodding slow, with the gaiety and celebration all around us. At the castle, we have to choose - so little time - and we choose first the submarine. Although the lines are long, the journey 20,000 leagues under the sea is as much an adventure as ever. As soon as we surface, we're ready to head over to the Circle-Vision theater. Magic again. For through the miracle of cinema we soar across the face of America and see and experience the places that would otherwise have taken a lifetime to encompass.

There is a pause for coffee in Fantasyland, and then on across Liberty Square to Frontierland. Guns crackle in the shooting gallery. A trio strums bluegrass music in front of the old saloon. Some might call it corn. To us, it is still adventure. And because Artice has an enduring love affair with the bears, we work our way up to Country Bear Jamboree. By now, these zany animals have become old friends. Even though we know each song and scene almost by heart, we still get carried away and sit there clapping and stomping like any old tobacco-chewing hillbillies.

Back outside again, we find the Magic Kingdom wrapped in twilight. The myriad lights are blazing, and it is yet another world. We stop for a glass of orange juice in Adventureland and listen for a while to the steel drum band playing Calypso in the square.

Closing time is near. The crowds are thinning out. Another day in the Magic Kingdom is nearing an end. We drift with the crowds over the bridge and along the walk in front of the Crystal Palace and down Main Street and out the gate.

Yes, time to go home. But, really, we're not quite ready."
It's rarely been better said than that.

Country Bear Jamboree, along with its sister attraction America Sings and counterpart The Mickey Mouse Revue, can be thought of as among the last great Disney animated shorts. Al Bertino was from the Disney story department, and wrote the scenarios (and presumably many of the gags) for the excellent late 40's Donald Duck cartoons and the famous early 50s run of Humphrey the Bear cartoons. The fast pace and conceptual wit of Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings has Bertino all over it.

Wathel Rogers (left) and Bill Justice (right), program Henry in 1970.
And although he never worked in the theatrical shorts department, Marc Davis' sense of animation and visual language, as evident in his late career as his early one, is legendary, even if it only ever fully blossomed in the media of themed design. Marc Davis was so good at what he did that he kept getting the most difficult animation assignments that scared the other animators. Cinderella and Alice aren't flashy roles and are technically demanding, but those characters hold their respective films together, and had they failed, they would've dragged the whole production down with them. That's how good he was, and most of his assignments for Disney animation were thankless ones.

When Walt Disney raided his animation department for Disneyland, he took many of his most accomplished artists to WED. By the mid-50s, the Disney shorts department was floundering. Mickey Mouse was retired after the totally forgettable The Simple Things, while Donald continued to evolve in increasingly bizarre and visually complex shorts like No Hunting and Donald in Mathmagic Land. Following the opening of Disneyland, Disney theatrical shorts became increasingly rare. 1961 saw the release of just two Donald cartoons, one Goofy cartoon, and the inspired Saga of Windwagon Smith, a historical curio. Walt literally stole all of the talent away. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Disney themed design products set standards for the industry, while Disney animation rolled along through the doldrums.

Country Bear Jamboree, Mickey Mouse Revue and America Sings, in style, content, format and length, show the integrity and wit lacking in Disney animation product of the time. Although they were animated with fiberglass figures instead of drawings and cells, the pace, wit and energy is the same as in the best of what the studio could offer in theatrical shorts at the peak of their accomplishment. It's probably no coincidence that animation legends furnished Magic Kingdom with two great tributes to Disney's glory days of animated past, a past that was rapidly sinking below the horizon line.

All of these things: the shows' importance to Disney, it's reverence towards history, and its preservation of memory, argue strongly for its continued existence, even if the full-strength version, with its full dose of Al Bertino and George Bruns' relentless forward pace and stronger structure, has been taken from us temporarily (one hopes).

Because to many of us, Grizzly Hall is home, too. Just as much as the Haunted Mansion, which I'll never tire of, or the Liberty Belle Riverboat, which I lived on for months at a time, Grizzly Hall was home to me, it preceded me and I hope it will outlast me because the show is one of those things that is The Magic Kingdom's birthright. For generations guests have entered the beguilingly simple lobby, toed the bear claw scruff marks on the floor, and settled in the heavy-draped Victorian finery of the theater to clap with Henry, laugh at "Mama Don't Whup Little Buford", applaud for the Three Sun Bonnets and roar with approval at Big Al. Country Bear Jamboree is one of the art's most enduring creations.

The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part One
The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Two
The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Three

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part One

In the future, we who move in Disney theme park circles may look back on the heady early days of the dominance of "The Blog" as being most important for providing the start of a great resurgence of interest in history. News and opinion may be the internet's stock in trade, but there wasn't really much detailed coverage of the company's history prior to 2006-07. Now, anyone with the faintest memory of the Golf Resort may find photos of it, and younger fans will discover and trace the development of EPCOT Center through a Google search bar.

And all without any help from Disney. The fan community is writing their history without them.

And yet one of the largest blind spots that has developed over the years is the development of one of WED Enterprises finest creations: Country Bear Jamboree. We know that the show was being worked on during Walt's lifetime and we also know that it was destined for the Mineral King ski resort in the late 60's. There's some early concept art pieces and song demos and then, that's it - the show opens in 1971 at Magic Kingdom and is a runaway success, but we don't really know how it came together, it just always has been.

This is where Disney's non-participation becomes more of a liability, because we simply don't have access to the documents to follow the paper trail. Whatever and however Marc Davis and Al Bertino put together what is probably the zenith of the Disney park theatrical experience, we can only guess.

Or can we?

There's always been a few tantalizing scraps. In "Project Florida", we see some storyboards and unused narration and animation for Henry. But the pieces never line up into a coherent picture. The piano sequence we see Al Bertino pitching in storyboard form is nowhere to be seen in the final show. In Project Florida, Henry moves and speaks lines that were jettisoned by opening day - full figure animation, several days worth of work. Both the figure seen in Project Florida and some of Marc's drawings suggest that Henry was intended to be seen only from the waist up, not seated on a barrel as in the final show. Nothing we see from the development period seems to be represented in the show as it has come to us.

Yet there is a way in, a way to circumvent Disney's notorious "closed door" policy, and that's to bypass them. The songs used in Country Bear Jamboree almost all existed before it did, and by going back to the source material that Davis drew on to create his characters we may gain insight into the creative process as it probably happened.

It's also unusual to hear the original recordings as they existed before Disney remade them to fit the animatronic bear show: it's like discovering a familiar but foreign holograph of something you spent your whole life seeing, the original definition of uncanny. But before we jump into the music itself, I'd like to take this opportunity to say a few words about genre.

What's in a Name?

That word. Country.

Country Bear Jamboree has never had a sterling reputation amongst some Disney fans, despite its historical pedigree, structural, and comedic sophistication. It has low humor, of course, but it has unusually smart humor as well, and this seeming contradiction has never set comfortably with some. There are those who maintain that the show is essentially mean spirited, who seem to jump to the conclusion that any depiction of "rural types" must invariably be negative. The assumption has generally been to look for farce, find it in Country Bear Jamboree, then make the leap that that is all that there is. Yet Country Bear Jamboree develops its memorable characters out of farce and, through subtlety and comedy, builds them towards something like an actual personality. It may appear to be doing very little, but the show contains whole universes.

And then there are those who simply cannot move beyond that word on the marquee: country. But "Country" is a multifaceted music genre, and one the show explores in some depth, which is why it begins with those words spoken by Henry at the start:

"...featuring a bit of Americana - our musical heritage of the past."

This is true, but it seemingly hasn't ever been explored in any detail, so to frame that exploration we need to know what "country music", exactly, is. It's always been a messy lump of a genre, and musicians we don't always think of as "Country Music" have wandered through it - not just Johnny Cash, but Elvis, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. The definition of "Country" has changed dramatically since the attraction opened, and today carries connotations which have doomed it with audiences who aren't willing to meet the show halfway. All of these things are important to understand, because Country Bear Jamboree has much more complexity than any show about singing bears has any right to.

The earliest roots of "country" music was what was then officially known as "Hillbilly" music - ballads, railroad songs, and other stories that passed verbally between singer and listener. One of these, "The Wreck of the Old 97" sung by Vernon Dalhart, sold seven million records in the 1920's, making it one of the biggest hits of its era. Today when we listen to "Hillbilly" music, we're unlikely to immediately connect it to our modern Country music, but the style is a key to unlocking what's going on in Country Bear Jamboree:

It's worth remembering that in this era, there still were travelling musicians and performers to pass these songs around, and while Dalhart was busy recording innumerable disaster-themed songs like The Death of Floyd Collins and The Wreck of the Shenandoah, other traveling musicians like Woody Guthrie, one of the great chroniclers of the American Depression, were rewriting ballads Dalhart sung into new forms.

The 1930's saw the emergence of the second key style represented in Country Bear Jamboree: the Western genre, the reason why the show can be placed in Frontierland. Popularized throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s by "Singing Cowboys" like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Western music, which is largely dead today, has claim to some of our most beautiful American music:

Both styles grew out of the same traditional folk and mountain music, one drawing inspiration from the native sound of the Southeast, the other the Southwest. By the 1940's, the styles were lumped together by radio stations and record producers, and Country Bear Jamboree, more "Out West" than "Down Home", mixes up the styles frequently even as, through the 1950s, Country began to evolve and Western began to decline. I think it's important to hear and know both Hillbilly and Cowboy music because this is what "Country" would've meant to the men who put the show together, whose impressions and memories of the music would've been formed before the 1940's.

The 1950's saw Country merge with the emerging Rock and Roll sound as well as another native American style, Blues, to form "Rockabilly", the style which made Elvis famous. From there, in the 60's onwards, the big record companies in Nashville began to push for slicker and glossier Country music standards, pushing the genre closer to the emerging Pop music scene. The instrumentation became denser, drums were introduced, backup vocalists, as well as anything else that would've made for a popular music sound of its era.

Country Bear Jamboree, and the music we'll be hearing today, date from pretty much the dead center of the shift towards a pop-rock sound, and many of the songs heard in the show are from the sixties - in 1971, most audiences would've recognized these songs from less than ten years ago. But the show itself has a more classical sound, most akin to bluegrass or the early "Hillbilly" records, which is part of the reason why it's played for so long - it quite literally is Your Grandfather's Country. In 1971, the show took popular music of its day and hauled it back towards its roots, demonstrating how very different sounding styles were in fact, at their root, related.

And Country Music kept changing. While Country Bear Jamboree was less than ten years old, Country had fully realized its merge with Pop with breakthrough records by artists like Dolly Parton and John Denver, who managed to get airplay on all radio stations regardless of audience. The style had mainstreamed its sound. By the late 80s and early 90s, most Country was indistinguishable from Pop except for the two-step or ballad arrangement and a few stringed instruments.

Additionally, culturally Country now meant a very different thing than it had in the 1960s. In the 80s, large numbers of rural AM radio stations which had previously specialized in "easy listening" began to switch to Country/Western full time in hopes of drawing in listeners thanks to the onslaught of FM radio. Urban and coastal audiences - those who didn't flee immediately upon seeing the word "Country" on the marquee at Disneyland and Walt Disney World - went inside and may have encountered something very different than they were expecting - if they thought about what they were hearing at all.

In the 80s, the growing rift of expectation and reality was "corrected" by a new generation of Imagineers with two new shows using the existing infrastructure of the Country Bear Theater: the "Christmas Special" and "Vacation Hoedown" in 1984 and 1986. The Christmas show in general, and the Vacation show in particular, seemed intended to draw California audiences back into the theater by both updating the presentation to reflect slick, modern Country-pop and introducing new styles of music, including Beach Boys and old standards like "Singin' in the Rain". Walt Disney World switched back to the original show almost immediately after a four-year run, but the Vacation Hoedown held on in California before belatedly closing in 2001. In 2012, the original show was cut by nearly a third in Walt Disney World. Both the Vacation and "digest" shows may have been masterminded by well-meaning and respectful creative teams, but neither does a show - that was always sort of a cult item - any favors.

Meet the Stonemans

One of the reasons the Marc Davis/Al Bertino show has dated so little has to do with the specific sound achieved by George Bruns in the recording of the performances and music, and much of that is attributable to the under appreciated performing group who brought the music to life, The Stonemans.

The Stonemans were, as of the late 60's, officially a performing group consisting of five to six members: Patsy Stoneman (autoharp), Van Stoneman (guitar), Roni Stoneman (banjo), Jimmy (upright bass), Donna Stoneman (mandolin), and sometimes Scotty Stoneman (fiddle). I'm being clear because the group included, up to 1968, bluegrass pioneer Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, a genuine Appalachian mountain music man who had a breakout success on the 1920's Hillbilly circuit with his song "The Sinking of the Titanic". Pop and his wife Hattie begot thirteen musical children, and depending on the era and record label any combination of them could be billed as "Pop Stoneman and Family", "Ernest Stoneman Family", "The Stoneman Family", and countless other variations. After Pop's death, the core group of five migrated to RCA records to become "The Stonemans", and it is this group, plus Scotty, who were hired by Disney to record the Bear Band music.

The Stonemans never fit well into the categories and market trends of the Nashville music industry; compared to the well-produced, slick product that dominated Country music in the 60's, the Stonemans seemed archaic. They continued to record their music much as Pop has taught them to play on the front porch of their Appalachian house; as a result, their music never quite evolved out of the Bluegrass/Hillbilly sound of the 1920's and 1930's.

The Stonemans got caught up in the folk/protest song movement of the 60s, and the sleeve of their most famous album, In All Honesty, wore hippie outfits while posing amidst the ruins of a battered barn. At the urging of youngest siblings Van and Joni, with probably no small influence from Bob Dylan, the Stonemans were mixing their traditionalist sound with sixties counterculture. The result has dated remarkably well. It's like folk music played at the clip of rock, Hippie Bluegrass:

The variety of skills, performers, and background of the Stonemans made them not only the best, but practically the only option for Disney back in 1970, and it is their specific, culturally unique sound that is the signature sound of the show, the most important thing that the later shows are missing. If you grew up with Country Bear Jamboree, it's surreal to hear a Stoneman record: it's almost impossible not to imagine Zeke, Zed, Ted, Fred and Tennessee playing the music. That's Roni "twangin' on banjo" for Zeke, Scotty on fiddle for Zed, and almost certainly Jimmy's signature upright bass, which once caused female fans to rush their stage in an attempt to touch the instrument, for Tennessee's one-stringed "Thing". Wendell's signature mandolin suddenly sounds more familiar. Many of the voices heard in the show even are provided by the Stonemans.
"I don't know how many labels anymore that Daddy was on, or how many names he used, but we recorded a lot of labels. You know that. We've done a lot of labels. The only two that's ever really paid us anything was a Disney/Vista record and Folkways. [...] We had to disguise our voices. They'd say, "Do it like you'd think a bear would do it," and that was it In fact, Mr. Roy Disney gave each one of us a Mickey Mouse watch. In fact, my husband wears it all the time. I still have mine. I wouldn't take a pretty penny for this."

Now that we've covered why the show sounds the way it does, it's time to get into the meat of the post: the original recordings that inspired Marc Davis and Al Bertino and what we can learn about the creation of Country Bear Jamboree from them.

Some of these records are not especially difficult to find; in these cases, I've included only a sample of the song - the section that made the final cut on Country Bear Jamboree - and encourage you to seek out the full track through whatever legal means are at your disposal. Others are completely obscure and don't appear to be available through any official channels and so appear here in full.

Also providing additional information is a list of musical numbers that appears to predate the final shape of the show; my copy has been heavily notated at a later date in preparation for the production of the Tokyo Disneyland version.

 Give me a little intro, there, Gomer.....

Pianjo! - Don Robertson - Monument MN45-964 1966

 One of two tracks licensed for Country Bear Jamboree and included in the final show, Pianjo! (which is indeed its name on the record) is a jaunty little ditty recorded by Elvis songwriter Don Robertson. Robertson was well known enough, but if he ever issued Pianjo on a compilation LP, I haven't found it. This version comes from a 45 rpm single intended for use on radio; the flip side is a bizarre track called "I Dreamed I Lost You" which leans heavy on electric organ.

This track is especially strange for longtime fans of the show, not just because the Robertson version is twice as long, but because Disney edited the track in 1970 to sound much more straightforward than Robertson's original, which circles and cycles around its melody in a rather jazzy, free form way.

Most of Marc Davis' character drawings for the show include the lyrics the characters was designed to express up in the corner, but Gomer is a noteworthy exception, and I would be interested in knowing if he was designed to fit Pianjo or if the track was found later on.

Following Pianjo, Bear Band Serenade begins, having been written by George Bruns and X. Atencio to set the mood. Although the LP hints at it, I don't think it's widely known that Pianjo was not written or even recorded specifically for the show - at least, I was surprised. Interestingly, this means that the first bit of original music for Country Bear Jamboree to be heard comes about a minute and a half into the show, which is an eternity for a show that moves as quickly as this does.

"Jethro" (left) and "Henry" (right)
Fractured Folk Song - Homer and Jethro - Fractured Folk Songs - RCA Victor LPM-2954 1964

Henry ("Homer) Haynes and Kenneth ("Jethro") Burns were the "Hillbilly" comedians who formed the basis of the Henry and Wendell dynamic of the first half of Country Bear Jamboree; Homer, on guitar, and Jethro, on mandolin, skewered every target, including themselves, with their hilarious patter all while attempting the Herculean task of picking out a simple tune.

Marc Davis seems to have based even the appearance of Wendell, in particular, on the musical comedians, down to the fact that one partner is significantly taller than the other - some things are just naturally funny, after all. Davis may have decided to switch up the dynamic a bit, or he may have just not been entirely clear on who was Homer and who was Jethro, because he seems to have based the face and character of Wendell on Jethro, the comedian of the two, although in reality, Henry was the short one:

What's most interesting for Country Bear Jamboree fans is that all of the patter at the top of Fractured Folk Song in the show comes direct of the Homer and Jethro record. Since Henry is referred to simply as the "M.C." in almost all of the internal materials for what was then known as Bear Band, it seems likely that his name actually comes from Henry "Homer" Haynes and may in fact be called Henry only so the (very funny) insults from the original record can be retained.

Homer and Jethro's "Fractured Folk Song" is especially funny, and it's worth hearing in its entirety, below.

My Woman Ain't Pretty - Tex Ritter - Tennessee Blues - Hilltop 6059 1968

Tex Ritter, one of the quintessential Singing Cowboys of the 30s and 40s, was branching out to Country, Blues and Gospel records thanks to the implosion of the Western music genre by the end of the 50s, and this record, on the "Hilltop" label, seems to be quite obscure.

Interestingly, although Tex sang two songs that ended up in the show, neither character which represents these songs as bears really resembles Tex in any way. Liver Lips, who's usually taken as a sort of Elvis parody, seems to be not an imaginative extrapolation of the performer as is the case of, say, Wendell being based on Kenneth Burns above, but instead an imagined version of who could be singing such a song. Bertino and Davis seem to have latched onto the song primary thanks to the comedy potential of the lyrics and then designed an outlandish character to match.

I think Liver Lips represents Blues in the show, a genre which has a lot of messy crossover with Country and Western, and which also famously launched Elvis' career, which may be why Davis chose to give Liver Lips his trademark cartoon snout.

Liver Lips is certainly extreme, but he's not an Elvis parody, which is just one of the points where the later shows seem to have seen only the most obvious joke. Elvis was trim, carefully groomed, and full of sexual allure in his era. Liver Lips is no Elvis; he's a ludicrous slob. He's full of bizarre touches such as the outrageous single-strap overalls and slingshot tucked in his back pocket. The laugh - and Liver Lips almost always gets one - has to do with his crazy appearance and funny song than any sort of similarity to any real performer in history. Neither Tex nor Elvis need be offended.

Mama Don't Whup Little Buford - Homer and Jethro - Fractured Folk Songs - RCA Victor LPM-2954 1964

Henry and Wendell return for yet another Homer and Jethro song, the second of what was originally three included in the show (more on the third later).

"Mama, Don't Whup Little Buford" is a one-note joke, and the show treats it as such - the original recording isn't much more complex, although it is longer, with explanations of Buford's criminal prowess, his strength ("Buford has been studying Judo / and he'll break your scrawny ol' neck"), and finally, how the family escapes Buford's reign of terror. It's funny, but Davis and Bertino wisely distilled the joke down to its shortest form.

Tears Will Be the Chaser For Your Wine - Wanda Jackson - Reckless Love Affair - Capitol ST-2704 1967

Wanda Jackson's "Tears Will Be the Chaser For Your Wine" represents the first of what could, at the time, be considered "modern" Country music in the show, although the arrangement by Bruns and the Stonemans mellows the song out enormously. Jackson's version is a much more aggressive two-step arrangement with all of the polish Capitol could muster.

Trixie is another character who only got the obvious joke in the Vacation and Christmas shows, where she was given big, brassy Aretha Franklin-style songs. Although Trixie is sometime treated like an extended fat joke (and Henry's introduction of her as "The Tampa Temptation" sets us up for one), once past the visual joke (one reinforced by having her perched on an absurdly tiny feminine little settee), Trixie is funny because of the dichotomy between her appearance and dainty, sad song and behavior. Elsewhere in Country Bear Jamboree, Davis and George Bruns use the energetic sound of the Stonemans and the bluegrass/country genre like a locomotive, to pull the show faster and faster towards the inevitable derailment (Big Al's appearance). Trixie's sad little song and gentle demeanor is the last time Country Bear Jamboree stops for a breath, and this careful attention to pace and structure is one of the things that sets the original show apart from its zanier but less interesting successors. This is one of the reasons Trixie is so memorable: a leftover from the old Mineral King resort show development, Davis seems to had real affection for sad Trixie, and the whole show settles into a gentle groove for her lament.

The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part One
The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Two
The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Three