Birdlore elements are easily integrated in music. The magpie, noted for its guile and love of shiny objects, “drops a marble from the sky” as a wake-up call in Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning”, which describes as well a circling vulture and a mockingbird singing stolen tunes from whippoorwills. Also, the counting folklore (e.g., “one for sorrow, two for joy”) associated with magpies is featured with haunting effect at the end of “Magpie” performed by Patrick Wolf and Marianne Faithfull. Similar counting rhymes have been adapted for crows, as used in “A Murder of One” by Counting Crows—a band named not only after birds but also after the folklore sometimes linked to them.
Those Birds—What Range!
Not surprisingly, tunes featuring the fair and feathered span all genres of popular music. We have a bluebird in Judy Garland’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, a nightingale in Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman”, a dove in Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”, and an eagle in Bette Midler’s “The Wind beneath My Wings”. There are jazz numbers such as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, made famous by Frank Sinatra. “Skylark”, later covered by Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane’s version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” are also classics. Country recordings include Tim McGraw’s “Last Dollar (Fly Away)”, Tanya Tucker’s “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”, Dolly Parton’s “Little Bird”, Roy Acuff’s “Sixteen Chickens and a Tambourine”, and, of course, Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry”, the latter’s whippoorwill and robin observed mirroring the crooning narrator’s dejection.
Like performers in country and jazz, musicians in rock, R&B, pop, and folk seem to be drawn to birds, if not more so. Even several bands have found the ideal representation of their collective persona and / or music in avian monikers and imagery. The Byrds, Eagles, The Black Crowes, Flock of Seagulls, Owl City, Cock Robin, Swans, Them Crooked Vultures, The Penguins, and The Cardinals top a long list. Note, too, that many albums feature cover art involving bird designs or photographs. A sample from different genres over the past few decades includes Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism, Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Deftones’ Diamond Eyes, The Who’s Endless Wire, the Patti Smith Group’s Wave, Waylon Jennings’ The Eagle, Rufus Thomas’s Do the Funky Chicken, Linkin Park’s Underground 4, Jimmy Buffett’s Songs You Know By Heart, Superchunk’s Come Pick Me Up, Snow Patrol’s Fallen Empires, and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky.
Something Old, Something New
While songbirds more than get their due, the nightingale definitely ranks as a perennial favorite. It’s featured in recordings by The Everly Brothers, Carole King, the Eagles, Norah Jones, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Demi Lovato. Bluebirds, eagles, doves, cuckoos, geese, blackbirds, and swallows are quite popular, too. Also, mockingbirds have enjoyed an enduring presence in popular music, going back at least to “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word”. That old folksong and lullaby has been performed by countless artists, most notably Nina Simone and Joan Baez. “Mockingbird”, another version written by Inez and Charlie Fox, is based on this tune. Carly Simon and James Taylor scored a major hit with it in the early 1970s. Rapper Eminem also has his own modern, jaded take, “Mockingbird”, loosely derived from the lullaby. Cutting Crew’s “One for the Mockingbird”, on the other hand, is not related at all to the children’s bedtime song.
Several folk songs have over the years spawned interesting interpretations. The Everly Brothers as well as Bob Dylan recorded “The Cuckoo” many decades ago, but other versions, such as ones by Laura Veirs and by Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers, are bringing the classic to new audiences. Lead Belly’s Depression-Era rendition of “Grey Goose” has remained influential as well, at one point inspiring an instrumental rock demo track by members of Nirvana and Screaming Trees (1). Of course, Pete Seeger, one of twentieth-century folk music’s most influential artists, recorded a version of the Lead Belly song long before the Seattle grunge musicians; he also has performed several other folk songs involving bird themes, such as “Turtle Dove” and “I Had a Rooster” (2). Perhaps, though, the oddest twist in the folk music genre comes from the old Australian song “Kookuburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”, which was in the news several years ago. A court ruled that the band Men at Work had used part of the melody in its 1980s hit “Down Under” without obtaining permission (3).
Figurative and Literal, Serious and Silly
The context in most popular songs about birds is often metaphorical, as illustrated by the dreamy optimism of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle”, the memorializing lyrics of the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song”, and Prince’s melancholic ruminations on volatile love in “When Doves Cry”. Birds, too, are frequently emblematic of romance. Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo”, a song covered by Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, and Iggy Pop, among many others, in turn features lyrics of longing for a female beauty strolling by onlookers. Also, birds can represent a deep yearning or restlessness, symbolized in signature hits as different in style as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”.
Sometimes, though, a song’s use of birds as subject matter can be quite literal. For example, in “I like Birds” The Eels sing of the simple pleasures of watching the avian world. Several recordings by other artists actually incorporate bird sounds within or as track segues or introductions. The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “Across the Universe” as well as Pink Floyd’s “Grantchester Meadows” are early examples of this. Paula’s Cole’s “Mississippi”, Radiohead’s “Codex” / “Give up the Ghost”, Andrew Bird’s “Spare-ohs”, and Kate Bush’s “A Sky of Honey” use this technique as well.
Overall, the emotional and lyrical range, as with all popular music, varies with bird-themed songs. Several tunes are silly and fun. “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots and “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen come to mind. On the other hand, Florence + the Machine’s “Bird Song” is wistful and Kafkaesque. Quite a few classics are uplifting, such as “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers and “Sparrow” by Marvin Gaye. Some, too, are tinged with sadness, as reflected in “The Swallow Song”, an old folk tune that includes these poignant lines: “Watch the swallows as they fly / There is no sorrow like the murmur of their wings.”
Birds, having greatly influenced songwriters and musicians for generations, appear in dozens of popular songs, regardless of genre and time period. The ones named here, of course, are just a few of them. Please feel free to list some more below in the comments section, including any of your favorites.
- Murray, N. “Grey Goose” (The Jury) in “No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked”, 2/27/14. Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/no-apologies-all-102-nirvana-songs-ranked-20140227/77-grey-goose-the-jury-0071771.
- “Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes (Little and Big)”. Smithsonian Folkways: http://www.folkways.si.edu/pete-seeger/birds-beasts-bugs-and-fishes-little-and-big/american-folk-childrens/music/album/smithsonian.
- Associated Press in Sydney. “Men at Work lose appeal over kookaburra riff”, 10/7/11. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/07/men-at-work-lose-appeal.