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
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.
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.