5 Remarkable Bird Songs and the Songs They Inspired

The Thrush family includes Bluebirds, Robins, and Blackbirds. The songs of these birds have inspired poets, songwriters, and birders for centuries. Here are the songs inspired by these birds…

Human songs, like the names we give birds, are a funny thing. Their meaning often remains just out of grasp, at least in part because they change depending on their context.

Take The Beatles’ iconic song “Blackbird.”

To the ears of a new American birder, it’s a strange thing to sing to a blackbird. After all, our continents blackbird’s — notably, the Red-winged Blackbird, but also birds like Common Grackles, Rusty Blackbirds, and Brewer’s Blackbirds — aren’t known songsters. They creak instead of singing (to our ears). Sure, their songs tell you almost all you need to know about the arrival of spring. But they’re not particularly musical.

But the Blackbirds of Europe and Asia, where Paul McCartney may or may not have heard one singing in the dead of night, are. As genus Turdus, members of the True Thrush family, these Blackbirds belong to one of the most renowned families of bird songsters.

According to McCartney, the song wasn’t ornithological, but a coded message to the Civil Rights movement in the US. Even so, the encoding works because Blackbirds are prodigious singers, as Robins are, filling the pre-dawn minutes, sunrise, the morning, the early afternoons, then the dusk again with their songs.

Common Blackbird, a relative of the Robin and a member of the Thrush family.
Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

Thrushes and Everything After

The extended family of thrushes includes birds like the Wood Thrush, about whom Henry David Thoreau wrote,

This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.

Many species of Thrushes can do this. For me, the Veery changes all hours into the long North Woods dusks in which I first heard them.

The Veery’s song is such that the account in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World can’t help but dabbling in poetry. Accounts in Birds of the World are usually restrained. But the Veery’s song is described with a word that is nearly as lovely as the song itself: “mellifluous.” One does not get four sentences into the account of the Veery’s song before reading that the

Ethereal quality of Veery’s song has been celebrated in prose for more than a century. “Their song consist[s] of an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive” (Baird et al. 1874b).

Three Songs Inspired by Thrushes + 1 Bird Formerly Known as a Thrush + 1 Blackbird

Not surprisingly, human songs find inspiration in the songs of Thrushes. Or perhaps it’s somewhat different. We try to embellish our own music by borrowing the magic of theirs. Here are three songs inspired, one way or the other, by Thrushes. And a fourth inspired by a bird formerly known as a Thrush. And fifth from one species of Blackbird — who, unlike the Common Blackbird, is indeed a Blackbird, though you might not know it.

Dan Deacon – “True Thrush”

Sure, Dan Deacon’s “True Thrush” doesn’t mention thrushes. But there’s the common name for genus Turdus, that of the Common Blackbird and the American Robin, right there in the song’s title and in the frenetic video for this even more frenetic song.

Horse Feathers – “Starving Robins”

Staying with genus Turdus. The indie band Horse Feathers’ plaintive song “Starving Robins” is a song about the struggles of seasons, as well as the movement of time. As spring tries to emerge from winter, we’re met with another frost–

Right out of the blue
A frost came to abuse
Down where the deer ate the dying grass
Near where the starving robins asked
Where's the Spring?

I can relate. I suppose that means the local robins can, too. Here in Colorado winter and spring intermingle until late May. We’re never really sure of the change, until it’s too late and the summer’s upon us.

Tallest Man on Earth – “Where Does My Bluebird Fly?”

One hopes that the Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson hasn’t spent his years in Europe looking for these flying bluebirds. As forlorn as this song would be such a search: Bluebirds are Western Hemisphere thrushes, nowhere to be found in Europe (despite an earlier reference to them along the White Cliffs of Dover).

Bluebirds are not nearly the songsters that members of their extended family are. But no thrushes are more certain signs of spring. Though Thoreau was thinking of the Eastern Bluebird when he wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” it is the West’s Mountain Bluebird that does this, surely.

A sky blue Mountain Bluebird, a member of the Thrush family.
Mountain Bluebird. Photograph by flickr user Doug Greenberg. Some rights reserved.

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”

According to the venerable Wiki, two European nightingales — the Common Nightingale and the Thrush Nightingale — used to be categorized with Blackbirds and Robins in genus Turdus. Today, both are genus Luscinia and recognized to be Old World Flycatchers.

Lost in the common names? Let’s get loster. Europe’s Robins are also Old World Flycatchers, but to the Europeans who came to the Americas, the New World’s Robins looked enough like the Old World ones to deserve the name.

Europe's Robin is unrelated to the American Robin. The former is a flycatcher, the latter a thrush.
Robin. Photo by Abdul Rehman Khalid on Unsplash

Want to get loster still? In North America, several species of birds carry the folk name “American Nightingale.” One is the Hermit Thrush. The other is the Northern Mockingbird, neither a Thrush nor a flycatcher, but a member of the family Mimidae.

Back to the Nightingale. One of Europe’s most famous songsters, the bird has inspired songs on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the early standards is the love song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Written in France in 1939 about a romantic encounter in a London park, the song’s been often covered, especially by American crooners (Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin).

Fleet Foxes – “Meadowlarks”

The Common Blackbird looks like a blackbird, but isn’t. Meadowlarks borrow the name of the Lark family, but don’t belong to them. With their straw-brown back giving way to a bright yellow chest, Meadowlarks doesn’t like they’re at home with among blackbirds. But like Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, and Orioles, Meadowlarks are members of the Icteridae family.

A singing Meadowlark.
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

The three species of meadowlarks that nest in the U.S. are remarkable singers. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Western Meadowlarks have a repertoire of about a ten songs. Their eastern counterparts have 5-10 times that. Despite the prodigiousness of the Eastern Meadowlark, it’s the Western that’s garnered more attention. Six states honor it as their state bird: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Like other blackbirds, the Meadowlark’s song is one of the surest signs of spring.

The Fleet Foxes’ “Meadowlark” is a lovely homage to this grassland bird.

Can ChatGPT Get Anything Right about Birds?

I asked ChatGPT to create a list of 5 birds named after their songs. The chatbot went 0 for 5. What went wrong?

Photo of a Northern Cardinal, who does not sing his name.
Northern Cardinal. He does not sing his name. Photo by Ahmer Kalam on Unsplash

Worried about ChatGpt? Not me. (At least not yet.) I previously asked the popular chatbot to explain the Whip-poor-will’s name, and it made the same mistakes of 18th century ornithologists. Now, I’ve asked ChatGPT to “Write a blog post about 5 U.S. birds who are named after their song or call.” It offered me this list of birds who definitely don’t sing their name.

Five Remarkable Birds Who Sing Their Names, according to ChatGPT.

Birds are one of nature’s most beautiful and melodious creatures. From their brightly colored feathers to their sweet songs, they are a delight to watch and listen to. In the United States, many species of birds are named after their distinctive songs or calls, making it easier for us to identify them. Here are five such birds and their fascinating stories.

  1. Eastern Bluebird: This beautiful blue bird is known for its cheerful “cheer, cheer, cheer” song. It is a common bird in the eastern United States and is often seen perched on fence posts or trees. Eastern Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness and hope, and their sweet songs can brighten up even the dreariest of days.
  2. Wood Thrush: This bird is easily recognizable by its beautiful, flute-like song that echoes through the woods. The Wood Thrush’s song is considered one of the most beautiful in North America and is often described as a rich and melodious “ee-oh-lay”. These birds are found in deciduous forests across the eastern United States and migrate to Central America for the winter.
  3. Northern Cardinal: The Northern Cardinal is one of the most recognizable birds in the United States, with its distinctive red feathers and sweet whistle-like song. The male cardinal’s song is a series of clear, sharp “cheer-cheer-cheer” notes, which can be heard year-round. This bird is a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands across the eastern United States and is a popular bird with birdwatchers.
  4. Tufted Titmouse: This small, acrobatic bird is known for its unmistakable “peter-peter-peter” call. The Tufted Titmouse is a common bird in deciduous forests in the eastern United States and is easily recognizable by its distinctive crest of feathers on its head. These birds are often seen flitting about in the treetops, diving into bushes, and hanging upside down in search of food.
  5. American Robin: The American Robin is one of the first birds to arrive in the spring, signaling the arrival of warm weather. These birds are known for their cheerful “cheer up, cheerily” song and are easily recognizable by their distinctive reddish-orange breast. American Robins are found across North America and are a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands.
Photo of an American Robin, a bird who sings his name according to ChatGPT. The robin doesn't.
American Robin, who also doesn’t sing his name. Photo by Trac Vu on Unsplash

In conclusion, these five U.S. birds are a testament to the beauty and diversity of nature. From the Eastern Bluebird’s cheerful call to the Wood Thrush’s flute-like song, these birds remind us of the magic of the great outdoors. So next time you’re out on a hike or in your backyard, take a moment to listen for these birds and enjoy their enchanting melodies.

What Went Wrong?

We got off to a good start. The chatbot recognizes that there are indeed birds named for their songs.

Unfortunately, the list offers only the most popular and common eastern U.S. birds. Four of the five have well-known songs that can be translated into English — either with words, “Cheer up, cheerily,” or through approximation, “ee-oh-lay.” But clearly none of these birds is named after their song. The Wood Thrush does not sing “Wood Thrush.” The Norther Cardinal doesn’t call “Car-din-al.” The chatbot entirely missed the distinction between having a song that can be translated into words and those whose name is a translation of their song.

ChatGPT also attributed the Cardinal’s song to the Bluebird. Bluebirds are famous for singing. We can thank Disney for this. But bluebirds are not, from the human perspective, remarkable singers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their song like this and not as “cheer, cheer, cheer”:

a fairly low-pitched, warbling song made up of several phrases, each consisting of 1-3 short notes. Harsher chattering notes may be interspersed with the whistles. 

5 More Remarkable Birds Named After Their Songs

Let’s try again, but with a human writer.

Photo of a Black-capped Chickadee.
A Black-capped Chickadee, who indeed sings their name. Photo by Bryan Hanson on Unsplash
  1. Chickadees. Chickadees are remarkably intelligent, social, and vocal birds. Often, they don’t vocalize their names. So it can be easy to forget that chickadees take their name from their “chick-a-dee” call. Research suggests that they vary the call, encoding messages in it. Remarkably, their messages convey information about predators, such as the size or speed of the threat.
  2. Eastern Towhee. Not all towhees call their name. But the Eastern Towhee is said to. The Eastern Towhee’s song has been translated into English as both “drink-your-teeaaa” and “to-wheeeee.” Only one of those is suited for a bird name, I suppose. The Eastern Towhee has also been given a name after their call: “Chewink.”
  3. Eastern Phoebe. Not all phoebes call their name. (Are you sensing a pattern? As European naturalists first encountered eastern North American birds, the continents other birds received hand-me-down names.) A common bird around homes and other structures, Eastern Phoebes indeed seem to rasp Phoebe’s name.
  4. Bobwhite. No longer widely known by U.S. Americans, Northern Bobwhites were once a staple of popular culture, known for their ability to whistle the English name, “Bob White.” Apparently, everyone knew the bird. Or at least this is what Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby banked on when they sang, “Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight).”
  5. The Wills. Four Northern American Nightjars are said to sing the name “Will“: the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, Chuck Will’s Widow, and the Common Poorwill. Odd thing that these birds would all learn the name of an Englishman. But they did, and all through North America our summer nights fill with Wills.

Featured Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

“A Little Bit of Pain”: ChatGPT’s Sad Song About Whip-poor-wills.

ChatGPT wrote a sad song about Whip-poor-wills. Its went as well as you’d expect.

Nick Cave has had enough. In his recent newsletter, Cave bemoaned that, “Since its launch in November last year, many people, most buzzing with a kind of algorithmic awe, have sent me songs ‘in the style of Nick Cave’ created by ChatGPT.”

Such songs fail, Cave rightly notes, because

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

I’ve been following reporting on the effects of ChatGPT on teaching. The AI’s algorithm can produce coherent-enough renditions of human writing on academic topics. I’ve posed synthetic questions to it, asking it to apply classical sociological ideas to contemporary topics. The results are fluent and accurate summaries of sociological theories, with adequate applications to new topics.

AI, in other words, currently writes essays that would receive a passing grade.

But its writing is bland and formulaic. Its ideas artlessly reflect what others have thought and said.

Likewise its songs.

Here’s AI’s version of a song, written in the style of Hank Williams, mentioning a Whip-poor-will. It’s a bland, general song about suffering. The rhymes are simple, mono-syllabic, and predictable. It feels like a mashup of every previous song about sadness and Whip-poor-wills. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, many pop songs probably could have been written by a chatbot.

In other words, The lyric is true, without being True.

Listen to the sound of the whip-poor-will
Echoing through the hills, it's a lonesome thrill
As the sun sets on another day
I can't help but feel a little bit of pain

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will
Your cry is like a song that's hard to still
It reminds me of the love that's gone
And the memories that linger on

I can hear you calling in the night
A mournful song, so pure and so right
It's a reminder of a love that's true
And the memories that still carry through

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will
Your cry is like a song that's hard to still
It reminds me of the love that's gone
And the memories that linger on

So I'll sit here and listen to you sing
As the stars come out and the moon takes wing
And I'll think of her and the love we knew
And the memories that still carry through.

(How long until some lonely singer-songwriter writes, “Hear that lonesome ChatGPT / It sounds to blue to AI.”)

As far as I know, Nick Cave never sang a song mentioning Whip-poor-wills. He did join Johnny Cash on a rendition of William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but Cash took the famous opening verse and Cave the second.

Featured Photo by Gertrūda Valasevičiūtė on Unsplash

Hank Williams and the Most Lonesome Whip-poor-will

Hank Williams wasn’t the first to share his loneliness with a Whip-poor-will. But what did he hear? And what do we hear today?

Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry 

There’s not much to say about Hank Williams “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Its canon. The song has been frequently covered by other country and folk performers. It’s also alluded to in still other songs, such as Dr. Dog’s “Lonesome.” Even an NFL quarterback covered it. In 1976, Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw’s rendition peaked in the top 10 of Billboard’s country music list.

Williams’ wastes no time with his Whip-Poor-Will, which appears in the song’s opening line.

Hear that lonesome Whip-Poor-Will
He sounds to blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve read, but have lost the source, that Williams’ was slyly making an ornithological point here: Whip-Poor-Wills only sing while perched. I haven’t yet confirmed this, though, as Birds of the World doesn’t make note of this. On its face, the claim makes sense. After all, many birds only sing or mostly sing when perched. This is something like the “default setting” for bird songs, so much so that most field guides mention the infrequent occasions when a bird sings while in flight (“skylarking,” see the note about this for Cassin’s Sparrows).

Still, the song begs the question of why a Whip-poor-will would be so lonesome. After all, John James Audubon had a very different experience of North America’s most famous Nightjar.

 Only think, kind reader, how grateful to me must have been the cheering voice of this my only companion, when, fatigued and hungry, after a day of unremitted toil, I have planted my camp in the wilderness, as the darkness of night put a stop to my labours! 

Audubon on Whip-poor-wills
Eastern Whip-poor-will by flickr user Tom Murray

The Lonesome Whip-poor-will?

Williams wasn’t the first to describe Whip-Poor-Wills as mournful or melancholy, so there are other meanings to chase (in future posts). And there’s the sonic qualities of the song itself, whether it indeed sounds like sad music. But I lack a musical enough ear to address those without the aid of others. 

So here, I just want to address one quality of the Whip-Poor-Wills’ call: what we can imagine of the human observer who’s encounters them and hears them as lonely.

To understand the human version of this bird, I think we need to consider how the Whip-poor-will’s cry operates in ways similar to the “kigo” – or season word – of haiku. Like a haiku’s season word, the Whip-Poor-Will’s song conjures a season and the associations it carries. It is a shared symbol, shared enough that others will feel and understand what we mean when we conjure it.

In this case, the season is summer. Whip-Poor-Will only shares its range with those of us north of Mexico and Florida in late-spring, summer, and early autumn. But at the edges of that time, the bird is migratory. By contrast, summer Whip-poor-wills are established in their breeding territories. It is from there where the male will show most commitment to his song.

Summer is also a season of possibility—for us, certainly, but perhaps also for breeding birds. For many a lonesome human, like Williams’ himself, companionship and young love—sometimes actualized, but also unrequited or lost—is one of those possibilities.

Like Whip-Poor-Wills, many birds sing through the summer to establish territories and attract a mate. Aurally, many of those songs suit the activity. (Of course, all those songs suit the activity, whether joyous or mournful to us.) Robins, Finches, and Towhees take prominent perches and boldly sing. Around them, House Wrens bubble. Warblers, meanwhile, warble. These are the songs that articulate summer possibility, filling the morning with rising energies.

Not all birdsongs have this quality (to our ears). I find some of the common flycatchers—Say’s Phoebes, especially—around Denver to also have plaintive songs and calls. So why are we not as lonesome as a Phoebe?

The time of day that a Whip-Poor-Will sings enriches its power as season word. Whip-poor-wills sing at twilight. They sometimes continue deep into nights, particularly moonlit nights.

Perhaps it is only the sleepless listener, with nowhere else to be, who encounters the lonesome Whip-Poor-Will.

Many of us, too, may only hear the Whip-poor-will’s song from some great distance, through the cacophony of an eastern night. Though the song itself is unmistakable, we need to be clear of the human soundtrack—the mix of cars, televisions, phones, and voices—that simultaneously effaces the Whip-poor-will’s and disguises our loneliness. To hear the Whip-poor-will’s song, we need quiet, a quiet only available to those away from gatherings of boisterous friends and whispering others.

Perhaps it is only the one with no one else that encounters the lonesome Whip-poor-will.

So now a more complete image comes into view.

You are deep into a summer evening. The world wears an absence, except for a three-syllable song.

Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will.

Song of the Whip-poor-will

You lose count of the cries. But with each repetition, you project your own want, your lack, your need on a bird you imagine sings with your feeling. Why else, after all, would he persist? Why else would he need anything other than a single line unless he, too, knows an absence?

But somewhere else, there may be another. To that other, the song is not lonesomeness. That song does not even sound like the syllables we, poor mimics as we are, mimic it with.

To that other, there is only the original and, still, the intended meaning of an unnamed song.

Featured photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_Williams#/media/File:Hank_Williams_Promotional_Photo.jpg.

Bird Song #10: Whippoorwill’s “Martindale”

Colorado trio Whippoorwill took their name from a bird they heard in Texas.

Texas is a recurring theme in music referencing Whip-poor-wills, though the bird has a marginal presence in the state. It migrates through in early spring, occasionally calling as it does. (This is a post for another day.)

In Whippoorwill’s case, they heard the bird at a porch-picking party at SXSW 2013 in Austin. The timing – the second week of March – seems better for a Common Poorwill than the Eastern Whip-poor-will, according to eBird data.

But the band hasn’t only taken the bird’s name. They also reference it, in their lovely song, “Martindale.”

The song touches on fairly standard themes associated with the bird — love, loss, and loneliness, mainly. And this is particularly true in the lyric in which the bird appears.

“It was a still and silent early morning
Just outside of Martindale
You know that Whip-poor-will she cried all night
She cried to no avail.”

Whip-poor-will’s sing to attract a mate. There’s some evidence, too, that those who’ve lost a mate sing more vigorously. In “Martindale,” the singing makes no difference.

“Because the morning came anyway
Seemed the same but it all had changed
You know my daddy used to say,
‘Don’t lose trust, cause you’ll never get it back.’

“Martindale” is written by Whippoorwill’s Alysia Kraft. Visit https://www.helloiamalysiakraft.com/ for more of Kraft’s music.

Bird Song #9: Barbara Streisand’s “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street”

Barbara Streisand’s not here for Whip-poor-wills.

On her 1963 debut album, The Barbara Streisand Album, Streisand performs “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street.” The song was originally written for the 1938 musical, I Married an Angel. (The music was made into a film in 1942. Wiki it here.)

The song counters the nostalgia of the cowboy songs of the 1930s (see Bird Song #8). Instead of pining for the open plains, coyotes, and Whip-poor-wills, the song offers us a singer who rejects the natural for the urban world. Streisand sings…

I won’t tell of my love
To every little star
Or the whippoorwill
On the hill above

Instead, she’ll tell, as the title of the song makes clear, “the man on the street.” (She’ll also “give the papers proof” and “use the radio.”)

The song swerves past the Whip-poor-will, leaving it behind for more contemporary symbols of human life. Perhaps it stands as a record of when the bird would be lost — lost to the country and folk singers who got nostalgic for it, and lost to the urbanites who might never have heard it.

Featured Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Whip-poor-wills, Country Music, and the Nostalgia of the 1930s

What did we lose when we gave up rural life for country living? For country singers of the 1930s, it was the Whip-poor-will and more…

In the early 2000s, a trio of country songs—Alan Jackson’s “I Still Like Bologna,” Vince Gill’s “Whip-poor-will River,” and Darryl Whorley’s “Back Where I Belong”—offered the nostalgic Whip-poor-will. The songs invoked the bird to symbolize a rural life missed, or preferred, to contemporary urban living.

When I wrote about this nostalgia, I wrongly assumed it was a particularly contemporary feeling. Between the suburbanization of rural areas, which began after World War II, and the Whip-poor-will’s decline in numbers since the 1960s, the bird’s song would become ever more difficult to hear. Hence, the nostalgia.

This assumption, though, was wrong.

In 1965, the country singer Hank Snow performed two songs on his album, Heartbreak Trail—”Chant of the Wanderer” and “Texas Plains”—that associate Whip-poor-wills with homesickness and nostalgia.

Both songs, in fact, were written decades prior.

“Texas Plains” was written in 1934 by Stuart Hamblen and His Covered Wagon Jubilee.

“Chant of the Wanderer” was written in 1939 by Bob Nolan for the film Texas Stampede. It was originally performed by the Western singing group, Sons of the Pioneers.

In “Texas Plains,” the Whip-poor-will appears as one reminder of a life lived on the plains of Texas. The song, too, is an explicit rejection of city life.

Down in my dreams somehow it seems
That I’m back where I belong
Just a country hick way back in the stick
Back where I was born
Cause the city lights and the city ways
Are drivin’ me insane
I want to be alone I want to be back home
Out on the Texas plains

I want to drink my java from an old tin can
While the moon comes shinin’ high
I want to hear the call of a whippoorwill
I want to hear a coyote whine
I want to feel my saddle horse between my legs
Just riding him out on the range
Just to kick him in the sides let him show
His step and pride out on the Texas plains

The association between Whip-poor-wills and rural life makes sense; the bird’s favored habitat is deep wooded areas. But the association with plains (and coyotes) is bothering me. Whip-poor-wills are present in Texas, yes, but they’re rare breeder (and, so, a limited singer) outside Texas’ mountains. The lyric, then, strikes me as a combination of images that would resonate with audiences but that, from a natural history perspective, don’t make a lot of sense.

I feel similar things about “Chant of the Wanderer.” But the reference to the Whip-poor-will is more ambiguous and cryptic.

Take a look at the sky where the whippoorwill trills
And the mountains so high where the cataract spills
Take a look at the falls and the rippling rills
Hear the wanderlust call of the whispering hills
(The rippling rills, the cataract spills, the whippoorwill trills)
Loh-oooh (the rippling rills, the cataract spills, the whippoorwill trills)
Loh-oooh (the rippling rills, the cataract spills, the whippoorwill trills)

Let me live on the range where the tumbleweeds grow
Let the silver sands change where the prairie winds blow
Let the wanderer sing where the wanderers go
Let the melody ring, for he’s happy I know
(The wanderers go, the prairie winds blow, the tumbleweeds grow)
Loh-oooh (the wanderers go, the prairie winds blow, the tumbleweeds grow)
Loh-oooh (the wanderers go, the prairie winds blow, the tumbleweeds grow)

It’s not clear to me how the Whip-poor-will fits into the “range,” “silver sands,” “prairie winds,” and “tumbleweed” of the song’s second verse, which conveys the sort of land the wanderer wants to live on. Is he leaving the falls, rills, hills, and Whip-poor-will trills for the prairie? Or is this one idealized place? Again, if the latter, the Whip-poor-will might not find itself at ease among tumbleweed, though CO’s Common Poorwill could. (That “Chant of the Wanderer” was written by Bob Nolan, a Canadian-born, New England schooled, then Arizonian schooled, Los Angelite, adds further intrigue to all of this.)

I want to think on nostalgia and homesickness more. There are lingering questions here — when these emotions entered everyday use, whether the Whip-poor-will here has already become a generalized symbol of rural life, how authenticity intersects with expressions of nostalgia and homesickness for rural life.

To the OED

Featured Photo by Melanie Mauer on Unsplash

Bird Song #7: Elton John’s Whip-poor-will of Freedom (1975)

Elton John’s 1975 single, “Philadelphia Freedom,” is neither about Philadelphia nor Whip-poor-wills. It’s not even really about what the song title itself references: the tennis star Billy Jean King’s professional tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. (The Wikipedia page for the song provides background on this.)

And so perhaps it’s fitting that the song, written with John’s long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin, references a symbolic, rather than real, Whip-poor-will.

If you choose to you can live your life alone
Some people choose the city
Some others choose the good old family home
I like living easy without family ties
Till the Whip-poor-will of freedom
Zapped me
Right between the eyes

I don’t yet know whether this is the case — but this may be one of the first metaphoric Whip-poor-wills to appear in popular music. (More recently, the band Darlingside nicknamed a cabin they made music in “The Whip-poor-will,” referencing the bird-cabin in some of their music. More on that in a later post.)

What’s a Whip-poor-will of freedom? And how does it zap?

I struggle to make sense of this verse, except to say this — in invoking city and family (presumably semi-rural) life, the verse covers familiar terrain for the Whip-poor-will. Perhaps because the song seems to side with city life, the figurative nature of the Whip-poor-will makes a bit of sense? After all, the real bird itself is rather rare in urban centers, including Philadelphia.

That much of the rest of the song is itself cryptic, using phrases that don’t quite mean what they mean (“Philadelphia freedom” being tops on that list) doesn’t help things along.

Even so, I find the reference to the Whip-poor-will notable because it’s suggestive of a transformation of the bird in popular music — from a literal bird singing to a symbol that carries the meanings of other references to the bird. That the phrase “Whip-poor-will of freedom” is written and sung by two English song-writers — the European Nightjar’s song is quite different from the Whip-poor-will’s — about city life, where the bird would find no home adds further intrigue.

Featured Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

Bird Song #6: M. Ward’s “Sad, Sad” Whip-poor-will

M. Ward’s 2003 album, Transfiguration of Vincent, contains a sad, sad song with the sad, sad singer visiting a sad, sad Whip-poor-will.

It’s a lovely song, even if the Whip-poor-will is a bit over-determined by the past two centuries of sad Whip-poor-wills.

And so I went to the whippoorwill, I said whippoorwill please,
What do you do when your true love leaves?
He said I only have but one trick up my sleeve,
I sing it over and over ’til she comes back to me.

I make a sad, make a sad, make a sad sad sad song
I make a sad, make a sad, make a sad sad song

The reference does have a bit of texture to it, in the Inception-like effect of it: the Whip-poor-will’s is a sad song (the bird’s own) within a sad song (all the sad songs invoking it that pre-date M. Ward’s and that give it its singular resonance) within a sad song (M. Ward’s).

Featured Photo by kilarov zaneit on Unsplash

Bird Song #5 – Big Thief’s “Black Diamonds.”

Big Thief – “Black Diamonds” performed at the Bunker Studio (2021). You’ll find our hero, the Whip-poor-will, in the song’s bridge, which starts around 2:10.

Big Thief’s “Black Diamonds” appears on the band’s second album, 2017’s Capacity. It’s a love song, I suppose, but I can’t tell if the song’s about a relationship worth keeping or one to flee. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, a relationship through which one discovers one’s self, while also learning that what’s out there to discover is a bit shattering. The song’s chorus seems to make this clear.

In your eyes, black diamonds
I could die, black diamonds
In your eyes, black diamonds
I could die, black diamonds
And I wake up in a cold sweat on your ceiling
Terrified of what your love’s revealing

The Whip-poor-will appears in the song’s slowed bridge. It’s not, as usual, the bird’s song that appears, but a pursuit of the bird itself–

The cold of winter warms my blood, and he’s hot like a bed of steel
He finds his peace of mind in the rivers and the Whip-poor-wills
I could follow close behind and slowly disappear
But I can never leave him, I can never leave him

In this contradictory mix of images, the song’s couples appear in tension: emotionally opposed, one wandering in solitude (with the rivers and the Whip-poor-wills), and one following (but at what cost). On the surface, the Whip-poor-wills that appear carry a fairly traditional meaning; they signify a person alone. But there are a few wrinkles. Often, it’s a song’s lonesome or nostalgic singer that relates to the Whip-poor-will. Here, however, it’s the song’s other — not the “I” but the “he” — that goes looking for the birds. And it’s peace, not lonesomeness, that he finds in the loneliness.

I’m left wondering about the seasons, too. Why do we move from winter to Whip-poor-wills, which are generally associated with summer? I don’t yet know.

Header Photo by Sina Katirachi on Unsplash

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