For generations of Americans, Burl Ives’ voice was synonymous with Christmas.
The Illinois native, an actor and folk singer who died in 1995, was known for holiday hits like “Silver and Gold” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” He also narrated and sang in the classic 1960s animated special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that’s still shown on television.
But it was a different kind of red that thrust Ives into the spotlight in the 1950s, when he was accused of having communist sympathies during an era when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others targeted suspected radicals in government and Hollywood, with many unfairly branded as subversives and blacklisted.
Ives’ FBI file shows the authorities were long interested in his political leanings.
According to an FBI record from 1950: “Confidential Informant T-14 advised . . . that Burl Ives has no regular program on radio or television at the present time, but that he appears as a guest star on a number of radio shows, for example, he was a guest star on the ‘Bing Crosby’ show approximately three months previous.”
That’s part of “The FBI Files,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ database of federal records on more than 100 people so far with ties to Chicago and Illinois.
According to the FBI records, the informant “further stated that Ives has been a sponsor of a number of Communist front organizations including the American Committee for Spanish Freedom, and the Citizens Committee of the Upper West Side.
“. . . Confidential Informant T-10 has advised that Burl Ives was an entertainer in 1941 at a function sponsored by the American Friends of the Chinese People, which was cited as a Communist front by the House Committee on Un-American Activities on March 20, 1944.”
Ives voluntarily appeared before a congressional panel in 1952, providing testimony that many in the left-leaning folk music world — notably musician Pete Seeger — saw as a betrayal, viewing Ives as cooperating to save his career.
“Ives, in the course of his testimony, admitted participating in various Communist Party fronts,” according to FBI records. “He denied Communist Party membership, but admitted that in the Spring of 1944 he did attend six or seven open meetings of the Communist Political Association.”
Ives named four people he recalled “were present at these meetings.”
In response, the founder of a folk music magazine wrote: “The well-known folksinger, who once joined in singing ‘Solidarity Forever,’ has a different tune today. It might be called ‘Ballad for Stoolpigeons.’ The future of Burl Ives should be interesting. We’ve never seen anyone sing while crawling on his belly before.”
Asked decades later about Ives’ testimony, Seeger said in a NPR interview, “Well, I don’t know how other people feel. I’m strong on the idea of forgiveness. I think Burl forgave me some of my foolishness and mistakes, and I’m willing to forgive others. I don’t think the human race will last unless we include forgiveness as an important quality of our lives.”
In 1959, Ives won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in the 1958 movie “The Big Country.”
He also was known for singing “Frosty the Snowman” and “Polly Wolly Doodle.”
Seeger, who died in 2014, called him “a great ballad singer” with a “beautiful voice.”
McCarthy, who died in 1959, has long been denounced for engaging in a witch hunt that destroyed careers. He capitalized on and stoked Cold War-era fears about the Soviet Union’s influence and ambitions during a time many Americans came to see communism as unpatriotic or worse.
In 1950, Ives “appeared at the Bureau and advised that he had severed all connections with Communists and Communism,” according to another FBI record in his file.
When he died at 85, he was described by the Washington Post as “a 20th century minstrel and balladeer who brought new life and popularity to some of America’s oldest folk music with songs of children, history, animals, insects and loves won and lost.”
He was buried downstate in Jasper County, where he was raised.