Waltzing with Bears

A couple of days ago, my random playlist on iTunes brought me the tune “Waltzing With Bears”, as performed by Patricia Herdman (and a singing audience) on the Keepers album (from Minnesota Public Radio’s Morning Show, which came to an end in 2008), and I reflected, once again, on a possible gay subtext in what is usually presented as a children’s song — “nursery music”, in the spirit of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” — or an Irish folk song (or frequently both). Here’s the version from Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, and Ed Trickett’s 1987 recording, on their collection The First Fifteen Years (Vol. II):

[CHORUS] Wa-wa-wa waltzing, waltzing with bears,
Raggy bears, shaggy bears, baggy bears too.
There’s nothing on earth Uncle Walter won’t do,
So he can go waltzing, wa-wa-wa waltzing,
So he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears.

[1] I went upstairs in the middle of the night;
I tiptoed in and I turned on the light;
But, to my surprise, there was no one in sight.
My Uncle Walter goes dancing at night.

[2] I gave Uncle Walter a new coat to wear;
When he came home it was covered with hair.
Lately I’ve noticed several new tears.
I’m sure Uncle Walter goes waltzing with bears

[3] We told Uncle Walter that he should be good,
And do all the things that we said he should,
But I know he’d rather be out in the woods.
I’m afraid we might lose Uncle Walter for good.

[4] We begged and we pleaded, “Oh please, won’t you stay?”
We managed to keep him at home for a day,
But the bears all barged in and took him away
Now he’s dancing with pandas,
And he can’t understand us,
And the bears all demand at least one dance a day.
CHORUS, twice

I have five versions on my iTunes, and a sixth is transcribed here. These are:

Bok/Muir/Triplett, a maritime version in the Scots-Irish tradition (Bok was born in Camden, Maine, and his songs tend to reflect these roots)

Herdman, a folksinger/songwriter

Tommy Makem, exponent of Irish songs

Will Millar, also specifically Irish

Mack Bailey, singing for kids

(Digital Tradition Mirror  [DTM] lyrics, from Mudcat)

Each version has its own variants of the lines, but two have additional verses. The DTM version has a somewhat ominous introductory verse (which might go back to Dr. Seuss; see below):

[0] Our Uncle Walter’s not right in the head
He’s been that way all his life, my mother said
It’s not that he’s violent or falls down the stairs
It’s just he goes waltzing, waltzing with bears

And the Herdman version has a fifth verse with a kind of resolution:

[5] But last night when the moon rose, we crept down the stairs.
He took me to dance where the bears had their lair.
We danced in a bear hug with nary a care.
It all seems like flying, there is no denying,
And now my pajamas are all covered with hair.

And the Bailey version varies the chorus on the final repeat, bringing in Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear too, and Yogi Bear and Booboo, and Winnie the Pooh.

A digression on the history of the song. As Ann Mayo Muir writes in her notes on the First Fifteen Years album:

The story behind this delightful song is a complicated one. In 1967, Dr. Seuss published “My Uncle Terwilliger” in The Cat in the Hat Songbook, with piano score and guitar chords by Eugene Poddany. Inspired by the song, Dale Marxen wrote “Waltzing with Bears,” but when he tried to copyright it as an adaptation of the Seuss song, the copyright office told him that it was not an adaptation, but, rather, it was a new song. He then applied for and was granted a copyright on the song recorded here.

What attracts children to the song? Assuming that the child identifies with Uncle Walter: the pleasures of transgression, of disobedience; having secrets from the family (despite the give-away hair on Walter’s clothes); negotiating dangers (going Where the Wild Things Are), as evidenced by the tears in Walter’s clothes, but still Walter comes home safely after his night-time adventures; the attractive but also frightening prospect that Walter will some day leave home and live on his own, with his new, chosen, family. Probably more — this is just off the top of my head.

Gay men and lesbians hearing the song hear the same things, but applied now to their own situation: the secret life, especially at night, hidden from their families of birth, moving them away from these families to potential new ones, but with the dangers of walking on the wild side. (And then there’s the “funny uncle” theme.)

Several gay men have said to me that of course “Waltzing with Bears” is a gay song, specifically a gay male song, and some of them connect it to the bear phenomenon in gay culture. The Wikipedia entry on the phenomenon reports that

Bear is LGBT slang for those in the bear communities, a subculture in the gay/bisexual male communities and an emerging subset of LGBT communities with events, codes and culture-specific identity. It also describes a physical type.

Bears tend to have hairy bodies and facial hair; some are heavy-set; some project an image of working-class masculinity in their grooming and appearance, though none of these are requirements or unique indicators. Some bears place importance on presenting a hypermasculine image and may shun interaction with, and even disdain, men who exhibit effeminacy. The bear concept can function as an identity, an affiliation, and an ideal to live up to, and there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear, however a consensus exists that inclusion is an important part of the Bear Community.

So there’s a gay (sub)culture within the larger culture, and a bear subculture within gay culture. Bears tend to separate themselves from the larger gay culture, with their own venues and occasions, some formalized, as in the annual Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco, for bears and bear-lovers. And, as I learned recently from a card passed on to me by Chris Ambidge, regular Bearracuda — portmanteau alert! — nights at gay clubs (i.e., gay bars; there’s a lot packed into Bearracuda) in a number of cities, mostly on the West Coast (the most recent Bearracuda night in S.F. was May 15), offering “beards, fur, bears, cubs [the young ones] and other wildlife”.

And of course there are subtypes of bears: leather bears and muscle bears, in particular, with the bear identity cross-cutting other gay identities.

(Some years ago, there was a discussion on soc.motss about whether I could be characterized as a bear. I had the facial hair and the body hair, but I was (at the time) awfully svelte for canonical bearhood, so eventually someone suggested that I should be classified as an otter, a proposal that I found quite attractive.)

But to return to the song: I very much doubt that Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Gordon Bok, Patricia Herdman, Tommy Makem, or any of the others had gay culture, much less gay beardom, in mind when they sang about Uncle Walter, and no one should be concerned by the enjoyment children take in “Waltzing with Bears”. There’s no insidious recruitment of the young going on here. But gay people can take their own special pleasure in the song.

I’m a bit surprised that the song hasn’t been performed with an overtly gay slant — sung suggestively, ironically, in a Tom Lehrer voice, or even parodied as “Cruising with Bears” or something similar. There’s a (very small) career niche out there for the adventurous performer.

11 Responses to “Waltzing with Bears”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    A friend has expressed surprise that there are so many recorded versions of “Waltzing with Bears”. I listed five in my posting, two that I’d picked up as part of collections plus three that I searched out. There are many more than five out there: in my searches, just on mp3 singles available from the iTunes and Amazon on-line stores, I found around 35, most very much kiddy-oriented.

  2. Bear music « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] been on the trail of musical bears before — Uncle Walter waltzing with bears. On my iTunes, there’s “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (I have three versions on […]

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  6. Philip Says:

    An easier interpretation would be that Uncle Walter is an alcoholic who, despite pleadings by the mother, goes out at night drinking and comes back staggering drunk, with tears in his coat, supported by other staggering drunks. I was once in a dive bar where elderly drinkers got up to dance with each other. It seems to fit the song.

    • Spencer Says:

      [AZ note: the following comment is in response to the comment above from 2012 (9 years ago), suggesting an alcoholism reading for the song]
      This seems to make sense considering he was given a new coat…alcoholics of the earlier time were usually in disrepair and considering he has the title uncle would suggest he is an older man.

  7. Ann B. Says:

    Since I heard Bob Staines version I’ve always suspected that it was about drug use “there’s nothing on earth Uncle Walter won’t do” etc. Perhaps it is about ANY secret habit with some bad consequences.

  8. Nicholas Altenberg Says:

    Uncle Walter went into a sleeping bear’s lair,
    He wanted to dance so he tugged on its’ hair.
    The bear got quite angry, it made him despair,
    When the bear put its teeth in – Uncle Walter got eaten,
    No more he’ll go waltzing, waltzing with bears!

  9. Marilyn Says:

    When I first heard this song in 1989 it brought tears to my eyes. It brought to mind the friends who had been engaging in citizen diplomacy, traveling to the USSR to meet with peace groups. Such travel was seen as scandalous and unpatriotic and dangerous in mainstream circles.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh my, the Russian Bear (that is, Russia as a symbolic bear); that hadn’t occurred to me. (Nor had I thought of football players — the Chicago Bears, the UC Berkeley Golden Bears, the UCLA Bruins, and so on.)

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