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

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)

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