Burl Ives lives on in my record collection, right next to Iron Butterfly. (I arrange my albums alphabetically.) Some people know Burl only as the voice of the “Holly Jolly Christmas” snowman from the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” holiday TV special. Granted, I watched Rudolph every year when I was a little kid. But I first knew Burl’s voice from my parents’ long-playing albums.
One record featured folk songs and children’s tunes, which I liked well enough, but another featured old-time hymns and songs of faith. “Shall We Gather at the River?” Burl asked, and he told of “The Sweet By and By” and “The Unclouded Day.” But my favorite song on Burl’s gospel album was farm-related.
Because I couldn’t yet read and my vocabulary was accordingly limited, I mistook the song’s crop harvesting terminology for animal husbandry. For years I thought Burl was “Bringing in the Sheep.” When I realized that Burl wasn’t singing about livestock, and instead was “Bringing in the Sheaves,” I was disappointed.
My family raised dairy cattle, but I knew what sheep were — “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and all that. But sheaves? I had no idea. My dad embraced modern farming technology. He had a swather. Nobody was bringing in any sheaves on our farm.
Sheaves or sheep, I like old-time Gospel music. It speaks to both my faith and my doubt far better than any contemporary “I Love Jesus” Christian pop or praise music. But when I hear Burl sing, I still tend to replace sheaves with sheep — I just prefer the imagery.
P.S. Burl’s birthday is coming up soon, June 14. Make your celebration plans now!