Waltzing with Bears
Author: R. Force, A. d'Ossché, Dale Marxen, Theodore Geisel
Date/Studio: 1984 Altman, San Francisco, CA
Engineer: Sandy Stone
Producer: Robert Force
Original Release: When the Moon Fell on California (KM318)
Current Release: The Complete Recordings (BSR 158)
In 1981, Holly Tannen brought this delightful tune to the 7th Annual Kindred Gathering held in Talent, OR. Albert and I immediately fell in love with the song but it had a fatal flaw. Uncle Walter is left with people shaking their fingers at him and saying he ought to be good and they are afraid they'll lose him. That didn't seem fair for such affable old coot so we plowed right in to write a better ending.
“We begged and we pleaded, 'oh please won't you stay,' and managed to keep him home for a day. But the bears all barged in and they took him away. Now he's dancing with pandas and we don't understand but the bears all demand at least one dance a day.” Now there's an image! Walter's eccentricity wins.
We took the rewritten tune on tour and folks really liked it. It was a folk hit! It was so strong we decided we'd put it on our next lp and name the album after it. Now we had to research where it came from. (Much harder to do before the internet.) We turned up that the hook of wa-wa-wa-waltzing was from Uncle Terwilliger Waltzes with Bears from Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel. So we wrote to him.
His lawyers blasted back a “cease and desist” order. Wow! Buzz saw! I was for going forward. “Let 'em sue!” Headlines: “Folk duo sued by megacorp kid's author for singing a funny song about bears.” Our research proved the song had come out in 1967 in the Cat in the Hat Songbook. As a published work it was fair game as long as we paid the copyright fee and didn't “substantively change the nature of the work” like making Walter/Terwilliger into an unsavory character. That's the law. The story line was that somebody's uncle goes wa-wa-wa-waltzing with bears. That's the song. The rest is adaptive.
We did move the song from the title cut. Too bad. Mike Rugg, a Sasquatch artist, was going to do the cover. We had stopped a big, shaggy guy outside of the studio and taken pictures waltzing with him so Michael would have something to work from. Cautioned prevailed. Bears came out in 1983, slotted next-to-last on our When the Moon Fell on California album. The storm of lawyers never materialized.
A short time later I was at a performance of Faith Petrich's at the Eugene Country Fair. Faith started in on how a folk song was being stolen by corporate giants and record companies. She invited this guy on stage, Bob Hexem. Bob told the crowd his friend, Dale Marxem, had written a song about him and people were recording it and lawyers were trying to steal it. They sang Waltzing with Bears. I was cringing. Who, us? So much for due diligence. They also sang our verse. Huh?
In 1988, Rise Up Singing came out with the tune credited to Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Eugene Poddany (the person who wrote the music for the Cat in the Hat Songbook) and Dale Marxen. Bob Hexem and I have discussed this song many times. He is indeed bear-like and waltzable. He recently sent me a copy of a letter he received from Dr. Seuss when he had written to ask if he could do the song. Geisel personally wrote to Bob saying, “no he couldn't do it. There were already two folk musicians, Robert Force and Albert d'Ossché who had recorded it and that action was pending.”
Many people have added verses over the 30 years now since this song created the “perfect storm.” In 1984, the year after Moon Fell and our version of Uncle Walter came out, Dr. Seuss was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “his special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents.” That was an award richly deserved. My kids grew up on his books. Dr. Seuss is OK with me. As for lawyers, their job is to protect clients by always saying, “no.”
The Seattle Men's Chorus sang Waltzing with Bears in 1990. The program credits Force and d'Ossché as being the authors. Such is the nature of folk songs as they make their way into the world.