Search form

Who's Afraid of ASCAP? Popular Songs in the Silly Symphonies

From 1929 to 1939, Disney's Silly Symphonies united animation with a rich array of music, including such songs as "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." J.B. Kaufman reports.

Music and animation: the potent union of those two forms of expression was celebrated in Walt Disney's animated series, the Silly Symphonies. From 1929 to 1939, this extraordinary series of films united animation with a rich array of music, encompassing classical melodies, traditional folk tunes, operatic themes--and popular songs.

Carl Stalling, who played a pivotal role in inaugurating the Silly Symphonies, also set the musical tone for early entries in the series. Drawing on his background as a theater organist, he exhibited a knack for developing musical scores both from original themes and from a wide variety of existing sources, including currently or recently popular songs. This facility would serve him well in later years during his celebrated tenure at the Schlesinger/Warner Bros. studio, where it was part of the charter of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies to exploit the songs in the vast catalogs of Warner's music publishers.

But Disney in 1929 had no music catalog, and the use of copyrighted music in his films meant the added expense of royalty payments--at a time when his meager budget was already stretched thin. Stalling and his musical successors were usually discouraged from using such material in their scores. Occasionally copyrighted songs did turn up in Disney's films; Walter Donovan's "Aba Daba Honeymoon," for example, can be heard in Monkey Melodies (1930).

When established music was used in the Silly Symphonies, it was used imaginatively. Historian Russell Merritt points out the significance of Just Dogs (1932), which opens with a group of mournful dogs in a dog pound. The score accompanying this scene is a musical joke: the tune is Guy Massey's "The Prisoner's Song," made popular by Vernon Dalhart's 1924 hit record. To get the joke, an audience was expected to recognize the tune and remember the title. (In 1935 the song was reused in a roughly similar way in another Symphony, Music Land.)

As a rule, however, Disney composers were urged to avoid such tunes. Stalling recalled* that, on at least one occasion, Disney had asked him to compose a tune that suggested a popular song without actually plagiarizing it. This practice did not end with Stalling's departure from the studio in 1930; a notable example can be heard as late as 1934, in the baseball sequence in The Tortoise and the Hare. As the cocky Hare flaunts his speed by playing baseball with himself, the music accompanying him is an original theme written by staff composer Frank Churchill--the cue sheet identifies it as "Battin' the Balls Around"--but it plants a strong subliminal suggestion of Albert Von Tilzer and Jack Norworth's "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." This was the preferred way of dealing with established songs in Disney's cartoons.

A New Concept

But if one source of music was generally discouraged, Disney did sanction another, characteristically inventive, one: the use of original songs. This phase of Disney music was launched in earnest with the success of Frank Churchill's "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" in Three Little Pigs (1933). This landmark song was conceived only to serve a simple functional purpose in the short: the two playful Pigs sang it to express their carefree personalities and to tease their hard-working brother. As heard in the film, however, the song exercised an irresistible appeal of its own.

Three Little Pigs opened in the spring of 1933, and its subsequent success story has become a matter of record. Similarly, the extraordinary success of "Who's Afraid" is now well known; quite unexpectedly, the Disney studio found itself with a hit song. Soon "Who's Afraid" appeared in sheet-music form, published by Irving Berlin, Inc. and embellished with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell. (In recent years her contribution has been disputed--inexplicably, since the "additional lyrics" attributed to her are embarrassing at best.) By the end of 1933, at least a dozen recordings of "Who's Afraid" had been issued by various record labels, and several of those recordings were further "milked" by recoupling with alternate B-sides or on subsidiary labels. One side by Harry Reser and His Eskimos, recorded in October 1933, was used on seven different records!