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)

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