At the turn of the twentieth century, nobody expected the repercussions of political discourse to include a childhood companion that has endured into the twenty-first century. But commerce, craft and entrepreneurship formed a perfect union in 1902. Then-President Theodore Roosevelt, known to his chagrin as “Teddy,” became the subject of a fateful political cartoon when, on a hunting expedition in Mississippi, he refused to shoot a bear that was captured and subdued for his benefit. Cartoonist Clifford Berryman caricatured the incident in The Washington Post in a cartoon that caught the eye of Morris Mitchum, who was inspired to create “Teddy’s Bear.”
The rest is history, for your toy chest and for the jukebox. John Walter Bratton composed “The Teddy Bear Two-step,” later known as “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” in 1907. The Songs of America presentation features one of the earliest recordings of the tune, a humorous Arthur Pryor’s Band session from 1908 which casts a trombone in the leading role of the growling bear.
The teddy bear’s origins go back to American politics, but the song’s popular lyrics originated across the pond. Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy composed lyrics to “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” in 1932, by which time President Roosevelt’s connection to teddy bears was probably lost to most of the children who favored their mangy familiars. Englishman Henry Hall recorded the first vocal version of “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” and in the decades since, an eclectic variety of musicians has performed the beloved children’s song, including Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia, Canadian pop singer Anne Murray, New York folk singer Dave Van Ronk, and cabaret singer and friend of the Library of Congress, Michael Feinstein. The playful song has a surprisingly sinister side that has been used in the movies as in British director Peter Greenaway’s 1985 film A Zed and Two Noughts. History has proven this to be a particularly well travelled bear, and the Music Division hopes the Songs of America provides a launching pad for countless musical journeys.
More than two years in the making, Songs of America brings forward 80,000 digitized, curated items including maps, recordings, videos, sheet music, essays, biographies, curator talks and more to explore America’s history through the prism of song. Be sure to read other Library of Congress blogs today for more about this vast collection.