This sprightly song, “Zip-A-Dee-D00-Dah,” was written for the 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South.”
The film was one of the first to combine animation and live action and brought to the screen many folk tales of the South as collected and published by the 19th century Georgia newspaper reporter and editor Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908).
These were based on classic, unwritten tales of Southern folk culture collected over the years by Harris who adapted and began publishing these in 1879. His books and stories were widely read and beloved by generations of American children. In the books the stories were narrated by a fictional former slave named by Harris, “Uncle Remus.”
I remember reading the stories from books in my school library, seeing the movie three or four times (only 25 cents plus a dime for a bag of popcorn!) . . .
. . . and happily singing this snappy tune over and over in school and camp during the “sweet old days” of my youth.
“Zipp-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in a movie in 1947 and the popular film was a huge financial success at the time.
The film was set on a bucolic (albeit fictional) cotton plantation in Georgia in the years after the Civil War . . .
. . . and featured folk tales narrated by an older, former slave living on the property–Harris’s “Uncle Remus.”
Harris’s stories were written and voiced by his Uncle Remus in the Black vernacular of the day and introduced readers to characters like “B’rer Rabbit,” “B’rer Fox,” “B’rer Bear,” “Tar Baby,” and a host of other anthropomorphic creatures. The stories told of their antics, adventures, and provided simple–almost biblical– lessons in morality.
Harris’s stories, mostly originated from the African-American oral storytelling tradition.
In their day, these tales were seen as charmingly revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personages, and true-to-life landscapes. They were lauded by contemporaries of Harris like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. And, of course, on a postage stamp.
But, that was then; this is now.
Today, folklorists praise Harris’s work in popularizing and preserving Black storytelling traditions. His work, however, remains controversial to many due to his use of dialect, racial stereotypes, and a setting on a cotton plantation in the old South.
Even when first screened in 1946, “Song of the South” became the subject of controversy and protests. Needless to say, these grew over the years and prompted the Disney corporation’s decision to never re-release the film in either theater or video format for showing in the United States. So, don’t look for the movie on Netflix or HBO or even Disney+. Not available, not in this day and age.
The animated characters from the film are, however, still found in Disney’s books and other media and once were popular features in the Disney theme parks. Now, even these are touched by controversy.
And, just this past year, the popular “Splash Mountain” water slide at Disney World in Florida–with its “Zip-A -Dee -Doo-Dah” theme– has been removed.
Meanwhile, let’s just focus on the song.
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was composed by Allie Wrubel (1905-1973) with lyrics by Ray Gilbert (1912-1976).
These two songwriters collaborated on many of the Disney and other Hollywood songs of the era and our song is considered by many as one of the top tunes of American cinema. Digging back a bit, however, the song can trace its origins to a pre-Civil War, blackface minstrel song, “Old Zip Coon“—one of multiple variations of “Turkey in the Straw”—with a chorus: “Zip a duden duden duden, zip a duden day.”
Needless to say, this song is considered by many today to be wildly racist, but by others to be of historical and musicological importance. Food for thought.
Moving on. In the movie the song is sung to the children—both black and white—living on or visiting the plantation by the appropriately avuncular character Uncle Remus, played by the actor James Baskett (1904-1948).
Set during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the story follows a seven-year-old white boy who is visiting his grandmother’s busy cotton plantation. He befriends other children—black and white—and all are mesmerized by the tales told by the former slave still living on the plantation in what was implied in the film as “contented retirement.”
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to see and listen to our song.
In 1948, Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, the first Black male performer to receive an Oscar.
In a sad footnote to film history, however, Baskett was not allowed to attend the 1946 theater premier of the film in Atlanta, a city racially segregated by law.
The stories preserved by Joel Chandler Harris, and the Disney movie “Song of the South,” are part of our American heritage even though they come from a period in our history many would rather forget. To me, however, forgetting history is seldom a good idea. We can’t learn from what we are not taught.
But, beyond the context and controversy that still swirls around the movie, the song “Zip A-Dee-Doo-Dah” has a life of its own and lives on in many musical interpretations. So, click or tap on the triangles in the next images to pick and choose a favorite and, thoughtfully, have a “wonderful feeling” and a “wonderful day!” Just remember from whence it all came.
So, with some thought, let’s not throw the musical (tar) baby out with the historical bath water.
Just listen to the happy song, but know of the unhappy history– and STAY TUNED!
3 thoughts on “ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 3 February 2023–“ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH,” A Song Once Simple But Now Complex”
Great post, Bruce. Handled delicately, and I learned a lot. Better than Google. See you in a few days. – Chris
On Fri, Aug 2, 2019 at 11:10 AM NOHO BANJO & UKULELE MUSINGS wrote:
> NohoBanjo of Northampton, Mass. posted: ” UKULELE MUSING 31, 3 AUGUST > 2019—“ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH,” A SIMPLE SONG WITH A COMPLEX STORY TO TELL This > bright song found on the last page of our Yellow Book was featured in the > 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South.” The film combin” >
We were soooo innocent…… and privileged… growing up. Very interesting – as usual! Bill
Indeed, you certainly handled this topic, in your usual sensitive manner, and it was SO enjoyable to remember this really memorable , especially joyful song – setting aside any racism that might be implied. Loved your treatment of it! Thanks~