The Whippoorwill is a very interesting bird. It appears in bluegrass music frequently because it is a bird of symbolism.
Near a quiet and country village
Stood a maple on the hill
There I sat with my Geneva long ago
When the stars were shining brightly
We could hear the whippoorwill
As we sat beneath the maple on the hill
What does a whippoorwill even look like? That’s a good question because most people, even bird lovers, have never seen one. They tend to be active at night and they are well camouflaged but here in California we have an even bigger problem. It’s an eastern bird not native to our area and though we may sing bluegrass songs about the whippoorwill just as well as our eastern cousins, we’ll probably never hear that mournful call that gives the bird its name. “Whi-poor-will”, that’s what it sounds like:
I’ve never been much of a bird watcher. My sister used to check off bird sightings in her Roger Tory Peterson book but I didn’t really ever get into the fun like she did. That changed a bit with COVID. The world changed so much then. People weren’t congregating as much and I became aware of bird visits to my area much more acutely.
I know that soon I’ll have to travel
I know I’m over the hill
I feel so all alone my darling said she’d be gone
When I heard that first whippoorwill
Bill Monroe’s classic bluegrass song reminds us that the song of the whippoorwill has some dark connotations. Like the weeping willow tree, the whippoorwill’s song was associated with death. If you heard that call the night before a battle during our War Between the States or “Civil” War, you might be very spooked out that your number would be up the next day. For many a soldier on both sides of the conflict, it was.
We have poetry about the whippoorwill. This one by Steven Vincent Benet is about a fiddle contest:
Native Americans thought that the cry of the whippoorwill was a death omen. New Englanders imagined that the whippoorwill could sense a soul departing and capture it as it flees. The constant cry of the whippoorwill at night drove some people crazy. A famous short story by James Thurber describes the effect.
But the experience of hearing the call of the whippoorwill can also be somewhat more benign:
A whippoorwill call is just a reminder
Pretty girls have hearts made of stone Awake with the blues at dawn
My darling Cora is gone I don’t know why she told me goodbye
But my darling Cora is gone
Flatt and Scruggs did that one well. Here’s another one they did:
And when it’s late at night and the moon is shining bright
And the whippoorwill is calling from the hills
Then I’ll tell her of my love beneath the stars above
That I love her and I know I always will.
The Delmore Brothers mentioned the whippoorwill in at least a couple of their songs including When it’s Time for the Whippoorwill to Sing and another one more often heard in camp-side jam sessions:
I just saw a whippoorwill a talkin’ to a bear.
They were both a laugh-in’ ‘bout her givin’ me the air
She left me standing, standing on the mountain
She left me standing way up there
One of Hank Williams’s most iconic songs mentions the whippoorwill:
Hear that lonesome whippoorwillHe sounds too blue to fly The midnight train is whining low I’m so lonesome, I could cry
Maybe Hank was a bird watcher:
Did you ever see a robin weepWhen leaves begin to die? Like me, he’s lost the will to live I’m so lonesome, I could cry
The whippoorwill. A wonderful bird. Sadly, this is a species that is threatened.
When the whippoorwills are singing Across the dark and lonely sea
When you’re thinking of ten thousand, Will you sometimes think of me ?