Written by songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, the team behind classic tunes like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
," this fanciful tune is sung by Bert the chimney sweep in the Disney musical film Mary Poppins
. Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, entertains the magical nanny and her charges with the delights of his profession. In a reprise of the tune, Bert is joined by Mary (Julie Andrews) and the kids (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber).
The character of Bert didn't even exist until the Sherman Brothers wrote the song. They were inspired by a sketch of a whistling chimney sweep drawn by Disney animator Don Dagrati, and initially thought Mary Poppins could sing the tune to the children. When Walt Disney heard the idea, however, he thought it'd be better to create a new character - or several characters rolled into one. Robert Sherman recalled in a 2014 interview with Performing Songwriter: "Walt said, 'You know, we have this guy that draws pictures on the pavement and we have a one-man band and we have a fellow who flies kites - why don't we make them all one fellow and call him Bert, and he'll be the chimney sweep too?"
When Richard Sherman heard his brother's idea of calling this "One Chimney, Two Chimney, Three Chimney, Sweep," he thought it was a dreadful idea. Richard recalled: "I left the room and I took a walk, and I came back and said, 'Hey, wait a minute.' And we started playing with the word 'chimney' - breaking it up."
Richard told Performing Songwriter how the song evolved: "We had it and it was very heavy, almost with a Middle Eastern sound, and both of us started disliking it. It was a straight minor. We thought, 'We've got to lighten this thing up. It's English, it isn't Russian.' So we were thinking and thinking and then we re-harmonized it, and that's when the chromatic downward movement started in the harmony, all of a sudden the song came to life. Another thing happened. There's only 16 bars of music. We had to have more than that - maybe a bridge, a different phrase. We were constantly tortured about that, but then we thought, 'Maybe a folk song is about repetition.' So what we did was change the treatment, so sometimes it's a recitative, sometimes it's sung. The lyrics change every time around. It became a running theme in the movie, taking on different guises."
This won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 1964 Academy Awards.
This was covered by John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Esperanza Spalding.