An Undergraduate’s Parody Ski Song Led To An Academic Achievement.

How did a ski silly ski song to the tune of a classic melody wind up on a Folkways record which became a classroom classic?

 

 

As an undergraduate at Michigan State University in the early 1950s I joined the ski club, and I learned, among other things (like how to kick turn), a bunch of ski songs. We sang them driving up to Caberfae resort near Cadillac and apres ski in a local joint, The Pine Gardens.

These songs—passed from person to person—were often parodies. A takeoff on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” told the sad tale of an injured ski racer with the chorus “Gory, gory, what a Hell of a way to die!”

Another disaster-themed favorite re-worded the cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo.”

When I was a-skiing the hills of Sun Valley,

As I was a-skiing Old Baldy one day,

I spied a young skier all wrapped in alpaca,

All wrapped in alpaca, and cold as der Schnee.

This lugubrious piece went on to quote the injured skier who “Once upon Baldy used to ski gaily” but then “caught a right edge, and I’m dying today.”

Later as a graduate student in folklore at Indiana University I took a course on British ballads and learned that our Sun Valley song was part of a much older cycle of variations on the theme of “The Unfortunate Rake.” That’s “rake” in the archaic sense of a dissolute person, a libertine.

Author Jan Brunvand, occasional singer of ski songs, in the 50s.

In the original Irish and English versions the victim was a young soldier, dying from an STD, who describes his sad condition and requests a funeral: “Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,/ Six young girls to sing me a song.”

In the cowboy song the funeral request became “Beat your drums slowly and play your fife lowly, /Get six of them gamblers to carry me along.” Our skiers’ parody called for “Six from the ski school to carry my coffin,/ Six little bunnies to sing me a song.”

One of my classmates, a rising star in folksong studies, was compiling a record of versions and variants of the “Rake” cycle. He enlisted me to sing the skiers’ version. Trouble was, I couldn’t sing worth a darn.

So we got another fellow student who performed in a local folksong group to plunk guitar chords to keep me more-or-less on key, and I managed to lay down a decent track, as we say in the business.

The LP was issued by Folkways Records in 1960, and there I was earnestly chirping my “Sun Valley Song” on the same disk as nineteen real folk singers, including Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger.

“The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad” became a classroom classic used to illustrate how texts change as they are transmitted via oral tradition.

And you can listen to a sample of the “Sun Valley” song by clicking here. 

Even though this was my sole appearance as a folksinger, I make up in longevity what I lack in numbers. The Smithsonian Institution bought out Folkways and kept the entire catalog in print. Their website offers “The Unfortunate Rake “ by “various artists” as a CD or a download.

Or you can check it out on Amazon by clicking here.

I still like to sing an occasional ski song, to myself, usually while cruising western slopes, including a few times even those at Sun Valley.

 

4 Comments

  1. Roger Wangen says:

    Interesting! I wrote a song too, and would like to know more about publishing and performing. I would be interested in a call at 952-898-3905

    • Jan Brunvand says:

      I didn’t compose that song, though I did make up a parody of “The Too Fat Polka” that was the subject of another piece of mine on this website. And I did not publish my performance; someone else did. So I really know nothing about publishing music, and my performing skills are minimal. Good luck with your composition!

  2. Catherine Meyer says:

    Hello from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. I also skied in Michigan quite a bit.

  3. Jan Brunvand says:

    I rode a lift today with a lady who grew up in Crawfordsville IN and now is a resident at our UU hospital. Skiing tends to bring some of us midwesterners to Utah! I received my degree at IU in 1961 and lived in Idaho, New Jersey, and southern Illinois before we settled in Salt Lake City in 1966. Maybe I could make up a song about that: “On the Road Again and Again and Again . . . .”

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