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“If you go out in the woods today…”

1907 teddy bears picnic sheet music

The Hokey Pokey. The Monster Mash. Teddy Bears Picnic. Songs that have reached ‘escape velocity,’ broken free from their own era, and are now part of the American Songbook.

By the time he penned “The Teddy Bear Two-Step” in 1907, Tin Pan Alley composer John W. Bratton had already made a name for himself the decade before as a master of sentimental child ballads. One of his typical numbers from 1894, “Only Me,” tells of a cruel mother’s devotion to one child and her aversion to another child. 

“The neglected child song could always be depended on to make beer guzzling music hall regulars reach for the pocket handkerchief,” observed  Maxwell Marcuse in a 1959 book surveying New York’s Gay Nineties music scene. 

According to the 1880 census, John Bratton was brought up in the New Castle, DE home of his grandmother Sarah Bratten [sic]. History is silent about his relationship with his mother, but his child ballads surely reflect unresolved issues there.

Working with lyricist Walter H. Ford, John Bratton cranked out about 100 hits during the Gay Nineties, earning the nickname “grand old man of tin pan alley.” He penned “The Teddy Bear Two-Step” originally as a piano instrumental. Vocalist Ethel Woods added an early set of lyrics to the piece, but hers aren’t the ones that are cemented to the song in our minds.

If you go out in the woods today

You’re sure of a big surprise.

If you go out in the woods today

You’d better go in disguise.

London’s Tin Pan Alley was still flourishing in the early 1930s, and it’s lyricist Jimmy Kennedy from that scene who gave us the words that made “Teddy Bears Picnic” a timeless standard. The Henry Hall Orchestra recorded Kennedy’s version in 1932. Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Anne Murray have all contributed their take on “Teddy Bears Picnic.” The song has been used for incidental music in television shows, films and commercials. 

The boy from New Castle who grew up with grandma lived long enough to see his song become a classic. John W. Bratton died in 1947 at the age of 80.

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