From the Archives #2: The Mockingbird and the Whip-poor-Will (1870)

In “Magpie to the Morning,” Neko Case invokes a Mockingbird singing a Whip-poor-will’s song. It’s a lovely play on the standard image of these two birds, both of which have long been referenced in human literature and song. (For more, see my entry on Case’s song.)

Given the decline of Whip-poor-will populations, combined with the fact that most people encounter Norther Mockingbirds singing in suburban habitats that teach the birds the songs of common birds and human technologies, I’m left wondering how often today’s Mockingbirds sing the lonesome cry of a Whip-poor-will.

Historically, however, we’ve indeed encountered Mockingbirds’ covering Whip-poor-wills. In an 1870 letter to the scientific journal Nature, a William Taylor dismisses the possibility of non-human animal language. Among the non-human animals he references is the Northern Mockingbird.

The mocking-bird mimics the song of the whip-poor-will, the creaking of the wheelbarrow, the lowing of the ox, and the pattering of the rain ; but does it ever, like the Greeks, Romans, and Gaels, speak of the ox by the name bo ; or, like us, speak of the rain as pattering ; …

Four decades later, the Mockingbird continued to mimic Whip-poor-wills, at least according to a report published in The Auk. In “Notes on a Massachusetts Mockingbird” (1911), S. Waldo Bailey reports of a Mockingbird that sings the songs of at least 20 northern birds, including the Whip-poor-will. Bailey describes the Mockingbird’s imitation as “with spiteful accent,” a curious enough phrase.

These are Mockingbirds I want to hear — pattering, creaking, lowing, and Whip-poor-willing. It leaves me wondering about the changing repertoire of Mockingbirds, particularly as bird populations and the technological landscape both change. I can’t imagine a Mockingbird with the low of an ox or creek of a wheelbarrow, but I have heard them screeching like car alarms and beeping like a car being unlocked by fob.

And I wonder, too, where today a Mockingbird still sings, “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.” I suppose where you find that mimic, you’d find the Whip-poor-will himself.

Bird Song #2: “Mockin’ Bird Hill”

It seems fitting to move from Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning,” which has the Whip-poor-will’s song sung by a Mockingbird, to the country song “Mockin’ Bird Hill.” Written by Vaughan Horton in 1950, “Mockin’ Bird Hill” features a Whip-poor-will singing to the song’s narrator from the aforementioned hill.

When it’s late in the evenin’ I climb up the hill
And survey all my kingdom while everything’s still
Only me and the sky and an old whippoorwill
Singing songs in the twilight on Mockin’bird Hill

Though the singer’s alone in this verse and, indeed, the rest of the song, they don’t strike me as lonely, exactly. Much of the rest of “Mockin’ Bird Hill” is a celebration of life lived humbly, in communication with birds and the land.

Got a three-cornered plow and an acre to till
And a mule that I bought for a ten-dollar bill
There's a tumble-down shack and a rusty old mill
But it's my Home Sweet Home up on Mockingbird Hill

In this regard, the song seems to foreshadow a different strand in the symbolism surrounding Whip-poor-will: the longing for a simple, rural life. I’ve noticed this theme in more contemporary references to the bird. In his 2008 song, “I Still Like Bologna,” the country singer Alan Jackson lists the Whip-poor-will with other, simple things: the aforementioned meat product, white bread, grass, and a “good woman.” He contrasts these with particularly modern things that he could live without: 500 channels, cellphones, satellite communication, and the like.

Horton recorded “Mocking Bird Hill” with his band The Pinetoppers. The song appeared in Billboard’s “Top 10 Most Played Jukebox Folk (Country and Western) Songs” in late-December, 1950. In March 1951, it entered Billboard’s top 10 list for “Country and Western Records Most Played by Folk Disk Jockeys.” The song would eventually peak at #3, and it would appear in the Top 10 for two other performers: Les Paul & Mary Ford (also in 1951) and Donna Fargo (1977).

I couldn’t get through my first listen to this song (Paul & Ford’s version), as full of treacle matter as it is. (Thank you to my friend and colleague Geoff Stacks for that word “treacle.”) The song hasn’t exactly grown on me in the 24 hours since that listen. But I think I more fully understand and appreciate its sentimentality.

Written within five years of the end of World War II and at the beginning of the suburbanization of the country, “Mockin’ Bird Hill” expresses a longing for basic, simple connections to land, nature, and bird song. It strikes me as not that dissimilar from the affirmation-rich songs of now — amid the disruptions of COVID-19, climate change, and the politics of Trump — created by musicians as stylistically diverse as Lizzo (“About Damn Time”), Arcade Fire (“Unconditional (Lookout Kid)”) and Titus Andronicus (“We’re Coming Back”).

Not every Whip-poor-will is lonesome. But the nostalgia and longing of the Whip-poor-will of “Mockin’ Bird Hill” may be no less sad.

Image Credit

Northern Mockingbird by Joshua J. Cotten (Unsplash), Mathis, TX (USA)

Bird Song #1: Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning”

Neko Case’s song “Magpie to the Morning” appears on Case’s 2009 album, Middle Cyclone. The song is among the most full spirited and generous bird songs I know.

Each bird that Case evokes — and there are several — is treated with generosity and tenderness. Even the vulture, a bird normally associated with greed and excess (see Rage Against the Machine’s otherwise necessary “Guerilla Radio“), has a grace and wisdom that transcends us. Case also carefully attends to her vulture to describe his posture in flight, his movement through a warm thermal, and the moment when a scent of rot yanks him from the glide.

Black hands held so high,
The vulture wheels and dives,
Something on the thermals yanked his chain,
He smelled your boring apex,
Rotting on the train tracks,
He laughed under his breath because you thought that you could outrun sorrow

But as this is a blog about nightjars, it’s the Whip-poor-will’s cameo in “Magpie to the Morning” that most interests me. Case evokes the Whip-poor-will about midway through the song. But it’s not the Whip-poor-will himself who sings his famous song, but another songster, the Northern Mockingbird, who offers it.

Mockingbird sing in the middle of the night
All his songs are stolen so he hides
He stole them out from Whip-poor-wills
And screaming car alarms
He sings them for you special
He knows you're afraid of the dark
Come on sorrow
Take your own advice
Hide under the bed
Turn out the light.

The Whip-poor-will’s song has a long history in folk, blues, and country music. So why would Case evoke an imitation of the song, putting it — “Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will” — in the throat of a Mockingbird rather than the Nightjar?

I think it’s layers — layer upon layer — of borrowed meaning and emotion. The Whip-poor-will’s song has meant many things to us humans. One thing it means is lonesomeness. Case seems to be offering some of the Whip-poor-will’s loneliness tothe Mockingbird himself, singing (as the Whip-poor-will does) all night long.

But then, with the ambiguous “you” for whom the Mockingbird sings, the bird’s song again seems to become for us human-animals.

This “you” might be the Mockingbird’s mate. After all, that’s why he sings. But perhaps it’s as much us. “Magpie to the Morning” is a song about what birds and their behavior conveys to us about our species loneliness, sorrow, and grief.

And many of us, perhaps even more so than a female Mockingbird, are afraid of the dark. That Mockingbird’s song, then, becomes company through our fear. Perhaps this is why Case has the Mockingbird sing the familiar, unfamiliar song of the Whip-poor-will and the too familiar cry of a car alarm. The former offers the comfort of songs about loneliness — “Birth of the Blues” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” most notably — that evoke Whip-poor-wills. Through these songs, we remember that others, too, experience our loneliness and fear. The car alarm, meanwhile, reminds us of our presence among other humans (though perhaps it stands for both our need for co-presence and our fear of other humans).

I wonder, though, if there’s yet another meaning to the Mockingbird singing “Whip-poor-will.” The Mockingbird, here, mimics the Whip-poor-will just as generations of country, folk, and blues singers have. And for most of us, the Whip-poor-will is an obscure and rarely (if ever) encountered bird. Today, we hardly hear his song directly. Rather, we know it second-hand, in the vocalizations of other humans or, as the case may be, a Mockingbird.

Image Credits

Natasha Miller, Unsplash, Black-billed Magpie (Estes Park, Colorado, United States)

Patrice Bouchard, Unsplash, Northern Mockbird (Ontario, Canada)

Let's stay in touch

Sign up to receive updates and sneak peeks from my upcoming book on Whip-poor-wills.

By subscribing you agree with our Privacy Policy