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.

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

Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and the Nostalgic Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will numbers have declined markedly over the past several decades. Country singers have noticed. A trio of songs released in the early 2000s remember the lost world of Whip-poor-wills.

While the lonesome Whip-poor-will gets most of the attention, we’ve created another version of the bird. The nostalgic Whip-poor-will, perhaps first offered in the 1950s hit “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” shows strongly in the early 2000s in a trio of songs: Darryl Whorley’s “Back Where I Belong” (2002), Vince Gill’s “Whippoorwill River” (2003), and Alan Jackson’s “I Still Like Bologna” (2008).

In Whorley’s and Jackson’s songs, the nostalgia is put plainly. Whorley’s Whip-poor-will calls him home to pastoral world he left behind for city living.

Big city nights and lights surround me
Feels like a prison to my soul
I can hear a Whippoorwill calling me home
Back where I belong

Jackson, meanwhile, lists the Whip-poor-will as one of many simple things — like the bologna in the song’s title — that he prefers to modern developments.

But I still
Like bologna
On white bread
Now and then
And the sound
Of a whippoorwill
Down a country road
The grass between my toes
And that sunset sinking low
And a good woman's love
To hold me close

Vince Gill’s “Whippoorwill River” is less direct in both its invocation of the bird and in its nostalgia. The song references what appears to be a fictional river — or perhaps a local name for a river known by something else on Google Maps. (There are a few Whip-poor-will Creeks, but I’ve not yet found a Whippoorwill River.) The song celebrates a life lived simply, among the continuities of family and land. Gill sings of fishing the river with his father, running ponies there with the girl who’d become his wife, then fishing the river with his own son.

Yeah, he loves to go fishing on Whippoorwill River
And catch him a big one or two
He's learning about life
And its simple pleasures
And making a memory or two.

“Whippoorwill River” seems like the place to which Whorley’s Whip-poor-will calls him.

The association between Whip-poor-will and a lost world is not accidental. Whip-poor-wills breed in forests with clear understories, not the urban and suburban habitats that many Americans now live in.

Nor is this sense of lose uniquely human. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Whip-poor-will populations have decreased by about 2% annually since 1966. This reflects a decline of about 60% over the past sixty years. Like Whorley, the birds are losing their homes — wooded spaces with understories — owing to the “development” of these habitats into suburban spaces and for agriculture.

And while I’m hesitant to attribute the uniquely human state of nostalgia to Whip-poor-wills themselves, the losses and threats that Whorley and Jackson sing of seem to apply as much to the birds as us people who sing of them.

Learn More about Nightjar Conservation at http://www.nightjars.org/.

Featured Photo by Eagan Hsu on Unsplash

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