Sunday, October 28, 2007

You Can't Reason With a Headless Man

While Donald Duck's 1952 cartoon Trick or Treat bears the Disney Studio's most direct homage to the Halloween holiday, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment from the feature film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad serves up equal amounts of ghostly chills and jack-o'-lantern imagery. For All Hallows Eve is in fact the setting for Ichabod Crane's penultimate encounter with perhaps one of Disney's most underrated villains, the Headless Horseman.

One of the true highlights of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and perhaps one of the most overlooked musical vignettes in Disney films, is the song "The Headless Horseman" from composers Don Raye and Gene de Paul, noted Hollywood talents, both with extensive popular music resumes.

Don Raye transitioned in the mid-1930s from vaudeville entertainment to songwriting, working with other bright young composers, most notably Sammy Cohn. A fortuitous match was made in 1939 when the Andrew Sisters began performing his material. This led to work in Hollywood, first on the 1939 movie Argentine Nights and later the 1941 Abbott and Costello debut film Buck Privates, both of which prominently featured Andrews Sisters' performances. He became a resident song smith for Universal Studios, teaming with Gene de Paul beginning in late 1941 and the two subsequently collaborated on such films as In the Navy, San Antonio Rose, Keep 'Em Flying and Ride 'Em Cowboy. de Paul was also on the Hollywood fast track; that same year he was Oscar nominated for work on the film Hellzapoppin. The two found their way to Disney in the late 1940s, contributing to So Dear to My Heart, Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and Raye later on Alice in Wonderland. Shortly thereafter, dePaul would become especially famous for the musical numbers in MGM's classic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, released in 1954.

Distinctly reflecting their own musical backgrounds, Raye and de Paul infused the colonial American setting of Sleepy Hollow with the popular music styles of the mid 20th century. Frequent Andrew Sisters co-performer Bing Crosby tells the story via narration and song, and at one point provided vocal instructor Ichabod with his trademark "bo bo bo baba bo" crooning. But the segment's true musical highlight is in fact Crosby's vocalization of villain Brom Bones performance of the Headless Horseman ghost story.

Famous for such wartime hits as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," Raye's skills for clever, densely-worded lyrics are clearly evident in the tale of Sleepy Hollow's resident pumpkin thrower:

Now gather round while I elucidate,
On what happens outside when it gets late.
Along about midnight the ghosts and banshees,
Get together for their nightly jamboree.
There's ghosts
with horns and saucer eyes,
And some with fangs about this size.
Some short and fat, some tall and thin,

And some don't even bother to where their skin.

I'm telling you brother it's a frightful sight,
To see what goes on Halloween night.

Oh, when the spooks have a midnight jamboree,
They break it up with fiendish glee.

Ghosts are bad but the one that's cursed,
Is the Headless Horseman, he's the worst.
When he goes a jockeying across the land,
Holding his noggin in his hand.

Demons take one look and groan,
And hit the road for parts unknown.
There's no spook like a spook that spurned,

They don't like him and he's really burned.
Swears to the longest day he's dead,
He'll show them that he can get a head.

They say he's tired of his flaming top,
He's got a yen to make a swap.
So he rides one night a year,
To find a head in the hollow here.

And he likes 'em little, he likes 'em big,
Part in the middle, or a wig.
Black or white or even red,

The Headless Horseman needs a head.

With a hip, hip and a clippity clop,
He's out looking for a top to chop.
So don't stop to figure out a plan,

You can't reason with a headless man.

Now if you doubt this tale is so,

I met that spook just a year ago.

Now I didn't stop for a second look,
But made for the bridge that spans the brook.

For once you cross that bridge my friend,

The ghost is through, his power ends.
So when you're riding home tonight,
Make for the bridge with all your might.

He'll be down in the hollow there,
He needs your head. Lookout! Beware!
With a hip, hip and a clippity clop,
He's out looking for a head to chop.
So don't stop to figure out a plan,
You can't reason with a headless man.

"Grim Grinning Ghosts" vocalist Thurl Ravenscroft did an equally fun yet slightly more sinister studio version of the song that was recently included on the iTunes exclusive Walt Disney Records Archive Collection Volume One.


Tony said...

Great post! What I find interesting about Gene de Paul is that he shares the same birthday (June 17) with songwriters Sammy Fain and Terry Gilkyson ... who also wrote music for Disney features.

Unknown said...

Granted, I haven't seen this movie in a long, long time (no surprise, huh).

But, all I remember is that this movie scared the pixie dust out of me whenever it would come on the Wonderful World of Disney around Halloween time.

Anonymous said...

Love this post! Growing up near Sleepy Hollow I was always fascinated with the old legend. Oddly enough, having also grown up with old Disney movies, I didn't see "Ichabod and Mr. Toad" until I was about 10--relatively late in my Disney-watching career. The film became an instant favorite though, and Raye & de Paul's music was a big reason why.

Thanks for writing about this musical gem! Just reading the lyrics reminds me that I need to dust off the film and watch it again Halloween night.

Ed South said...

A newer rendition of the song was also included in the Sing Along Video/DVD Happy Hauntings: Party at Disneyland!

FoxxFur said...

That song is probably the scariest thing in the film - I never fail to be fascinated how it manages to be funny and really creep you out at the same time, without either being "too much". It's totally subliminal but by the time the song fades out and suddenly Ichabod is riding home alone, it just keeps echoing through your head..

Disney's best, and most subtle, "villain song"

Cory Gross said...

Love it! When I was young, Halloween was all about watching Disney's Greatest Villains - hosted by Hans Conried as the Magic Mirror and topped off by "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" - before heading out to trick or treat. The Headless Horseman is also my favorite villain only after Maleficent and Chernabog... That black rider is one scary fellow, with his echoing, maniacal laugh. His appearance is also one of the best orchestrated: there's all this spooky build up to a fever pitch, it cools off when Ichabod breaks down in laughter, and then *boom* there he is!

Oh yeah... You better believe that I'll be popping The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad into the DVD player on Wednesday!

Lainey Schallock said...

I'll add to the enthusiastic responses here! Great post Jeff! I guess the Andrews sisters and the boogie woogie theme has been in the air lately. I don't know whether you read my latest post, but I've got the Boogie Woogie Bakery Man, Andrews Sisters knock-off up on my blog now which I think you would enjoy. Readers interested in seeing/hearing the Headless Horseman song segment can find it on YouTube here:

Thanks again for a great post, Jeff. Happy Haunting! - Lainey

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history behind the song. I memorized it over 35 years ago when I was a kid, and was superised to find this post. I was glad to refresh my memory of the lyrics and wish I could find the cartoon to show my kids. You should post the lyrics for the Ichabod song too. You know the one where he is his own best pride and joy.......

Steven said...

I have this little feature on my Top 10 things to watch for Halloween. Really it doesn't matter what time of year it is, I enjoy this film and I get this song stuck in my head all the time.