Burl's Views


Burl's reflections on Burl and life in general
Before l was born I'm certain that l was fashioned to sing, and to sing simple songs, because l went to church prenatally and my parents sang in this simple little church. They sang all these wonderful evangelistic hymns that are very dramatic, poetic, and exciting. What I'm talking about is folk poetry, pure religious folk songs, the basic four-part hymn from which the Hawaiians got their folk music and from which black people got their spirituals.
This whole matter of growing old has a great deal to do with one's frame of mind. The mind controls the whole business, the mind controls the heart of the matter, you see. If your mind says, "I'm old and crippled," you are. If your mind says, "I'm not going to give in to this arthritis or to this stiff neck,'' then it goes away. It's largely a matter of thought. You make your own reality. I believe that very strongly. If you want to be depressed about the world, that's fine, you can do that but that will only drive you right down there with everybody else. Soon you'll be looking to alcohol and drugs to find relief.

The difference between me as a young man and me as an old man is all a matter of attitude. No, not attitude- -intent, intent, that's a better word. Twenty years ago I liked to go to nightclubs in New York and have people come up to me and say, "You're Burl Ives, the great performer." Much of my earlier life was spent seeking that kind of external gratification. But that's not true today. You see, about twenty years ago I began asking questions. Who am I? Where am I going? What is the significance of life? What is my purpose here on earth? Those are the sorts of questions that captured my attention. I became more and more introspective. So I'm less social now and more philosophical about life than when I was younger.

Material things have become increasingly less important to me as I've aged, while spiritual things have become more important. I remember back in 1946 when I ran into tax problems and had to sell my home and four-acre property here in California. Friends came to me weeping, telling me that this was a terrible thing. But I recognized even then that the house and the land were really only on loan to me, that a man isn't here long enough to truly say that he owns anything. So I just said to my friends, ''I'm just passing through. Don't fret about this. Something else will come along." I lost something that appeared to be very important in order to gain something far more significant.

Along with the loss of that house came a new approach to my performances. In the old days when I went out in front of an audience, for instance, at a nightclub or concert, I went out with the idea that I'm going to "put it over on the audience." I had a planned walk onto the stage, I had a planned set of songs, and I even planned what I was going to do with my face when I'd crack a joke and such. It was as well planned as a good bank robbery! Well, it was all contrived. The only time it wasn't was when I started to sing, because something else took over. And that something was a form of God given inspiration, and the audience could sense that.

Now I'm smart enough to know that the only time I can sing effectively is when I bring my mind into a state of innocence. When I am in a state of innocence, I can walk on the stage feeling confident that people will enjoy my performance. Now I just go out on the stage. I'm not worried about anything. I've got but one purpose, and that's to touch the hearts of as many people as I can. I let myself go into the feeling of my music and trust that my audience will feel that too.

I think that as someone grows older he doesn't worry so much about what the outside world thinks of him. He realizes not only that it is a waste of time, but that it impedes his enjoyment of life. I'm reminded of a story that my great friend John Steinbeck once told me. He was coming down from Sag Harbor, New York, on the train, and sitting in front of him was a young lady and her tweedy, pipe-smoking grandfather. All the way down the coast this young lady was yak, yak, yakking, talking her head off about other people and what they thought of her. When the train finally stopped in New York, the old man took a puff on his pipe and turned to the young lady and said, "You wouldn't care so much about what people think of you if you realized how little they care." And I think that's what happens when one gets older. We are smart enough to know that, or at least we ought to be. [Laughs.]

I think my life has been a long, slow process of trying to move closer and closer to the spirit by moving closer and closer to the heart. I'd like to believe that as I've gotten older, I've gotten smarter. I figure if a person doesn't get smarter, he's doomed. I'm certainly happier now. I have more fun now. I know now that I can do without all the material whoop-de-do that most people think is so important. That is not life. I know that. The heart is what's important. It all comes down to a vibration of the heart. Our hearts are the eternal part of us that goes on and on. I feel very strongly that I am a part of the entire cosmos, that I'm not something apart from the life of this pulsing universe. l am an integral part of it. And I suppose that's why I'm not at all afraid of death, because I see that my life is just a matter of growth and change. Everything is changing and creating at the same time. You see, I think disintegration is creativity. That might sound a little like Lao-tzu, but I think he was right. Everything is in the process of change. The way I figure it, when I die I'll simply be changing a raincoat, moving on to another level of energy, because I'm confident that energy never dies. If a piece of wood will never die, this bouncy thing called Burl will never die as well. Walt Whitman once wrote, "Out of the ocean, endlessly rocking." He referred to the Great Mother endlessly rocking the ocean, and that rhythm is pulsing in all things. Everything has a rhythm. .As another man said, "The longest journey any man will ever take is from his conscious mind to his heart." So the older we get, the more we grow into life, the more wisdom we obtain, and the closer we move toward the rhythm of the Great Mother ''endlessly rocking.''

There are times when I'm not so confident, I admit. Sometimes I look in the mirror and say to myself. Now, here is a ridiculous character. That's me? That old coot with the beard and that funny look in his eye? Is that me looking at me? There's a moment of hilarity there that is pretty wild. But all great comedy is a double-edged sword, so that the other side of that hilarity is the sad old face. John Steinbeck once wrote about somebody who saw the great eye of a Chinese man, and as he entered the eye he found the whole suffering world on the other side of it. So if you look into yourself deeply for any period of time, you begin to see yourself and your follies and the follies of the world. You also begin to see yourself passing on, see yourself dying. At this point I say to myself, I am not the body, I am not the mind, I am not even my emotions. I am spirit itself. When you can put your finger on that you can laugh again, because there is something remarkably freeing and joyful about the fact that every single one of us is spirit. I always end up with a little ancient prayer that goes like this: "Oh hidden life, vibrant in every atom. Oh hidden light shining through every creature. Oh hidden love embracing all oneness. May each who feels himself at one with thee know he is therefore one with every other."

I can't get up as fast as I used to, and I sure wouldn't be able to run much of a foot race, but I figure I'm a little like old Tom Paine. It seems that when Tom Paine was a very old man one of his political rivals met him on the street and began to chide him. 'Well, Tom Paine, I guess you're about through now, aren't you? You're crippled and you can't see. Tom Paine is nearly finished. It won't be long now." Tom just looked up and said, ''Oh, you're quite wrong, sir. I admit that the roof of my house leaks in the wintertime and that my house is very cold. And some of the doors do need fixing and some of the windows are missing. But there is nothing wrong with Tom Paine."


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