When I was a much younger lad, my favorite possessions (besides my beloved Star Wars figures–thanks for destroying those, Andy) were a few of the Disney records that were the actual soundtrack to the films (dialogue and everything). I remember Mickey & The Beanstalk and Johnny Appleseed the most fervently. I would listen to them relentlessly and Johnny’s Theme (The Lord is Good To Me) and “My, What a Happy Day” sung by the Golden Harp in Happy Valley, are still two of my favorite songs.
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
The best shorts of the Post-Fantasias are those not encumbered with a complex narrative or a variety of tones; they tell stories simply and quickly, reach their emotional climaxes effectively, and get out the door at the right moment, not required by the traditional three act narrative structure to hang around when they’re not wanted.
…Although it’s a well known trope of Disney’s to use a song to introduce a character’s motivations (I’m Wishing, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, Once Upon A Dream, etc). Johnny’s theme is a whistled, catchy little ditty which is one of Disney’s simplest and one of their least labored.
The Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need
The sun and rain and the apple seed
He’s been good to me;
I owe the Lord so much
For everything I see,
I’m certain if it weren’t for Him
There’d be no apples on this limb
He’s been good to me;
I wake up every day
As happy as can be
Because I know that with His care
My apple trees – they will still be there!
Oh the Lord is good to me!
…“The Lord Is Good to Me” is less a hymn and more a song in the mold of “Whistle While You Work” – a small personal expression by a small man with a big story.
The second time we hear “The Lord Is Good To Me”, it is just after Johnny has established his harmony with nature (by extension, God). He heads off into the wilderness whistling his little ditty, but before we can fully enjoy it again he’s vanished from sight and the whistling becomes haunting and distant. In auditory terms, we are losing Johnny as he passes into history, and each time we see Johnny henceforth he will have aged significantly, although it is the young man from the opening scenes we still think of. The third reprise of “The Lord Is Good To Me” is by a heavenly chorus after his death, when he leaves to plant the apple blossoms in the beyond we see as clouds from earth:
And someday there’ll be apples there
For everyone in the world to share;
The Lord is good to me!
It’s the last moment in the short and, backed by beautiful images where the orchard of his place of death becomes billowing clouds and sunbeams, it’s very moving. But the effect has been achieved through establishing a likeable song and character, delaying the return of the song, and finally bringing it back as an ethereal echo. The Lord is good to me, indeed. Yet we never once are required to subscribe to Johnny’s beliefs: the short is the only one in Melody Time to begin with a book opening and as such has, when combined with Dennis Day’s bright youthful vocals, the character of a national fable. As in Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, the religious theme is fairly submerged in the patriotic theme, and they keep each other in check, allowing a degree of universality to enter.
I know that Ollie Johnston will be remembered for bigger and better things, but this 1948 short from Melody Time will always hold a special place in my heart.