Tom Glazer

Folk singer ambivalent about the success of his 'On Top of Spaghetti'

Thomas Zachariah Glazer, singer and guitarist: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2 September 1914; married Miriam Reed Eisenberg (two sons; marriage dissolved); died Philadelphia 21 February 2003.

Tom Glazer was an influential member of a coterie of now-legendary folk musicians who came to the fore in New York in the 1940s. Working alongside seminal figures such as Wood Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Josh White, Glazer played an important role in the development of the politically aware urban folk movement of that era and helped pave the way for the commercially successful folk revival of the 1960s.

He later enjoyed a long association with children's songs and wrote one of the most durable numbers in the genre, "On Top of Spaghetti". Based on the tune "On Top of Old Smoky", its memorable lyric – "On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese / I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed" – has ensured its place within the wider oral tradition and it remains a staple of school playgrounds. The song's very ubiquity meant, however, that Glazer later became ambivalent about it:

You know I have a fantasy that I'm standing in line before the Pearly Gates in the musicians' line, in which I stand last. When I'm asked what have I done in music and I say I wrote "On Top of Spaghetti", I'm told, "Sorry, buster, you can't enter."

Thomas Glazer was born, to Russian immigrant parents, in Philadelphia in 1914. His father died during the great influenza epidemic of 1918 and he was raised by a succession of relatives before, eventually, ending up in an orphanage. He learned to play the guitar, bass and tuba while at school and was exposed to his father's collection of classical discs, an experience that would later bear fruit in songs like "Because All Men are Brothers" which he based upon Bach's Passion Chorale.

At the age of 17 Glazer hitchhiked to New York, where he worked in Macy's department store by day and completed his education by night. He then headed for Washington, DC, where he met Alan Lomax, whose work for the Library of Congress in cataloguing in American folk songs would prove a decisive influence in shaping Glazer's future career. He began to perform regularly on an amateur basis and was heard by Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited him to play at White House tea parties.

In January 1943 he made his professional début at a concert at New York City Town Hall during one of the worst blizzards in the city's history. A favourable response from a critic in the audience led to further work and by 1945 he was hosting his own radio show, Tom Glazer's Ballad Box. His songs from this period, including "A Dollar Ain't a Dollar Anymore", "Our Fight is Yours" and "When the Country is Broke", are typical of the period in their strong social stance. Glazer's 1946 protest against the proposed abolition of the Office of Price Administration, "Talking Inflation Blues", was later recorded by a young Bob Dylan.

A skilled tunesmith, Glazer saw his songs covered not only by other folk musicians, including Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, but also by mainstream acts like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. His music gained even greater exposure in 1957 when it was used prominently in Elia Kazan's savage cinematic dissection of celebrity, A Face in the Crowd.

It was, however, in the field of children's song that he began increasingly to immerse himself. His work in this area saw him record several albums, led to numerous awards and culminated in his Treasury of Songs for Children (1963) which, in addition to "On Top of Spaghetti", featured favourites like "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "It's Raining, It's Pouring". Fittingly, for a man who once said, "I hope the child in me never dies", it remains a best-seller some four decades later.

Paul Wadey

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