The Birds

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I’m as free a little bird as I can be,
I’m as free a little bird as I can be
I’ll build my nest in the white oak tree
Where the bad boys, they cannot bother me.

If you think about it, Bluegrass and old time music is a good fit for people with an interest in birds. And I guess the latter category includes just about all of us to some degree. Who hasn’t wondered at the flight of our feathered cousins and marveled at their activities? I live in Sonoma County, not too far from Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his famous movie The Birds. I’ll never forget Hitchcock’s chilling scene of an attack in a phone booth by thousands of swarming birds. I see those same birds swarm every year over the vineyards around here and they are quite a sight. They’re starlings, not native to the area but introduced from Europe in the 19th century. They gather in huge numbers and when they dart and weave in big looping spirals it is truly an impressive sight. Every now and then they make a mistake and smack into something like a big truck. The result is a big pile of dead birds that people wonder about. (Good thing there aren’t many more phone booths around these days).

Those big swarms of birds that gather every year remind me of Bluegrass fans gathering in their own swarms for each local festival. We like to socialize too. My first “festival” of the year came quite early this year, the January Bakersfield 48 hour jam. If you’ve never been you should go and if you have been, you probably want to go again. You can even get some good birdwatching in while you’re there. Just pedal south on the bike path along the Kern River and you’ll reach a big tract of open space that is a great habitat for all kinds of birds. I rode my bike down there every day and, if I had had a bird book, I could have counted more than a few species.

Look at how many of our tunes are about birds. Popular Old Time fiddle tunes include Grey Eagle, Turkey in the Straw, Hawks and Eagles, Duck River, Cluck Old Hen, The Crow, Chicken Reel, the Swallowtail Jig, Jaybird Died with the Whooping Cough, Oklahoma Redbird and the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Oh the Cuckoo, She’s a pretty bird,
And she warbles, as she flies.
And she never says “cuckoo”
Till the fourth day of July.

Certain birds have certain reputations in our culture. The cuckoo and the cowbird are shunned because they trick other birds into raising their young for them. And the nightbirds have a foreboding significance:

Can’t you hear the nightbirds calling
Far across the deep blue sea?
As you think of others darling
Won’t you sometimes think of me?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the bloody conflict of our War Between the States. Soldiers preparing for battle in that war were confronted by the very real possibility that they would die the next day. If they heard the call of a whippoorwill, it was spooky. That was considered a bad omen. Bill Monroe knew about this superstition when he wrote:

I know that soon I’ll have to travel
I know I’m over the hill
I feel so all alone, my darlin’ since you’ll be gone
When I heard the first whippoorwill.

A long time back I used to go duck hunting just to have an excuse to do something outside during the cold winters in New England. Now I’m happy staying inside on a cold winter day and listening to the Dillards warn about the dangers of hunting. Facing a charge of murder, the defense can only explain:

For she’d her apron wrapped about her
And he took her for for a swan.
Oh and alas, it was she, Polly Vaughn.

Although I was forced to endure a few northeastern winters, I was actually raised in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains and it makes me homesick when I hear Lester and Mac sing;

There’s a bluebird calling
In the Blue Ridge Mountains
Calling me, back to my home.

I suppose here I could gratuitously mention tunes like His Eye is on the Sparrow and The Goose Berry Song, just to get my species count up, but I’ll refrain from doing so (even though I just did). So get out your copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s bird book at your next jam session. You might be surprised at how many species you can identify from just one song list. And if you’re seriously into real bird watching, like my jamming buddy Bill Barnhart, you might want to check out an event I recently heard about called Birdfest and Bluegrass, where they combine birding and Bluegrass in one festival. Mark your calendars for October 8 and 9 for this year’s 12th annual festival in Ridgeford, Washington! See, I told you birdwatching and Bluegrass was a good fit.

Little birdie, little birdie
Come and sing to me your song.
Had a short time to stay here
And a long time to be gone.

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