Los Angeles Times Story On "Pirates" Music


It's a pirate's life, with little of the 'yo ho'

The Disney park attraction's signature song is one of the familiar elements largely missing from the film.

By Jon Burlingame, Special to The Times

In the opening scene of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," a little girl on the bow of an 18th century sailing vessel sings, "Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me." For anyone who has ever taken the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, the tune will be instantly familiar. It's the most famous faux-pirate ditty ever written, considering the millions of visitors who take the ride every year at four Disney parks.

Yet, apart from three fleeting references to its lyrics, "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)" is buried deeper than a pirate's chest of ill-gotten treasure.

F. Xavier Atencio, who co-wrote the song with veteran Disney composer George Bruns ("Davy Crockett," "Sleeping Beauty"), has not yet seen the film. Told that the song is never played in full, he laughed, "I feel left out."

The film, which opens Wednesday, borrows several other elements from the ride, small visual nods such as the dog with keys to the jail cell, a skeleton drinking wine and an underground treasure trove, among others. But fans of the ride, which has been one of Disneyland's most popular attractions since 1967, may wonder why the song isn't used more.

Disney's answer is that the film is not "based on" the ride but rather "inspired by" it, and is therefore not required to slavishly follow every aspect of the source material. (Those closest to the subject, composer Klaus Badelt, who scored the $140-million film with aggressive "Gladiator"-style music, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, didn't want to talk about it for this story).

The song is indelibly linked to the ride, but it didn't start out that way, according to Atencio, who also wrote the script for the ride. Atencio, now 83, started at Disney in 1938 as an apprentice animator on "Pinocchio," and eventually storyboarded dozens of Disney TV shows and theme-park rides until his retirement in 1984.

According to Atencio, park designers had been at work for a year or more on the Pirates ride before the idea of a song even came up.

"One day I got a phone call from Walt, and he said, 'I'd like to have you do the script for Pirates of the Caribbean.' So I said OK, and I put on my pirate hat," Atencio said. "I researched what I could ? 'Treasure Island' and stuff like that ? to get the feeling and the jargon of pirates. By the time I finished scripting it, I thought, why not a song?

"I think it was at the final story meeting I had with Walt that I brought it up. I had a rough idea for a lyric and a melody in mind, so I recited and half-sang the "Yo Ho" song. And Walt said, 'Great, get George to do the music and we'll put it in the show.' " Not being a musician, Atencio expected that Disney would assign Richard and Robert Sherman to write it. They were under contract to the studio, had already penned "It's a Small World" for the park and had won Oscars for "Mary Poppins." Instead, Disney gave the job to Atencio and Bruns, "and I became a songwriter overnight," he recalled.

Atencio's words ("We pillage and plunder, we rifle and loot ... / We kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot") launched a second mini-career. With another Disney composer, Buddy Baker, Atencio went on to co-write "Grim Grinning Ghosts" for the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and several other songs for Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World.

In the Pirates ride, the song is not only sung several times by the animatronic figures during the 15-minute boat trip, it is also heard on a harpsichord (which appears to be playing itself), a piccolo and in various other musical combinations.

Unlike more hard-core pirate numbers such as "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest," which feature such R-rated lyrics as "The skipper lay with his nob in gore / where the scullion's ax his cheek had shore," the Caribbean-style Pirates tune is mostly lighthearted and whimsical, ending with the G-rated lines "Aye, but we're loved by our mommies and dads / Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho."

Songs in pirate movies are a venerable tradition, according to film historian Rudy Behlmer ("Inside Warner Bros.," "Behind the Scenes"). The first significant one in the sound era, he noted, was composer Herbert Stothart's use of a male chorus singing the traditional "Dead Man's Chest" song in the opening moments of the 1934 "Treasure Island." "You were immediately thrust into that milieu, with the pirate mystique," Behlmer said.

Similarly, the traditional sea chantey "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?" was part of the score of Burt Lancaster's 1952 swashbuckler, "The Crimson Pirate." Film composers loved to write their own pirate songs. Errol Flynn's privateers burst into song ("Strike for the Shores of Dover!") in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for 1940's "The Sea Hawk," and Tyrone Power was heralded at the start of 1942's "The Black Swan" by Alfred Newman and Charles Henderson's high-spirited theme ("Heave Ho! Lubbers Avast! Mates Ahoy!").

When a period film opens with a tune about wenching or sailing for treasure, "there's no question what the movie's going to be about," Behlmer said, "particularly when it's sung rather than just referred to instrumentally. It's part of the dramatic construction, and it's very effective."

Cole Porter wrote an entire score for MGM's Gene Kelly-Judy Garland musical "The Pirate" (1948), and Disney's animated "Peter Pan" (1953) features Captain Hook's crew singing Oliver Wallace and Ed Penner's "A Pirate's Life" ("Give me a career as a buccaneer"). Among more recent films, the charming "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996) offered yo-ho-ho tunes by '60s pop writers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

Atencio is pleased that Pirates is still running at Disneyland, with his song intact, 36 years after it opened. "That's amazing to me. It makes me very happy to know that I was a part of it, and that it has lived this long and is as good now as it was yesterday."

But he has his own theory as to why the complete song isn't in the movie: "I think if they play more than six bars of the song, they'd have to pay me a royalty. I think that's why they didn't go any farther."

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times