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