Timeless Ditties about Birds

mockingbird

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Pappa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” Thus starts the classic lullaby. It’s one of the first songs many people ever hear. It’s also one of the oldest.

Orally transmitted, “Hush, Little Baby” was first documented in 1918.1 However, the tune may have much earlier origins, going back to a time when mockingbirds were more common as pets. The creatures were prized as caged songbirds through the 1800s. Praising the singing abilities of mockingbirds over nightingales, John James Audubon noted the popularity of the former as household pets in the United States.2 Among the owners of mockingbirds, Thomas Jefferson appears to have been the most famous. He kept several, including a favorite named “Dick.”3

Mockingbird Mania

Some rather old but well-known lyrical songs have mockingbird themes. For instance, in “Listen to the Mockingbird” (1854), the feathered virtuoso provides comfort and fond remembrances of a deceased loved one. Then there’s Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Mockingbird” (1912), which consists of a lover’s playful plea for her very own winged music-maker:

Honey, if you buy for me that mockingbird,
I’ll call you names like King Louis the Third,
If you buy for me that ragtime mockingbird.4

A perennial muse of songwriters, this little avian wonder appears later in hits such as “Mockin’ Bird Hill” (1951), “Mockingbird” (1963), “One for the Mockingbird” (1987), and even a 2005 single by the rapper Eminem. (By the way, a post on some rock-era compositions featuring bird-inspired lyrics is available here.)

More Music from the Days of Yore

Lots of old-timey tunes exist that make either literal or metaphorical references to birds. “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” (1900), for example, is a song about the miserable outcome of marrying for money rather than for love.5 The Parlor Songs Academy website offers an extensive look at the bird-related recordings of the Tin Pan Alley period. There, among the avian fare represented in American music history, one will find numbers about the cuckoo, crow, robin, whippoorwill, and a few others.

Several archaic ditties familiar to U.S. audiences have roots outside the country. One of these is “The Cutty Wren,” an old English folk song related to the Wren Hunt tradition in parts of Scotland and Ireland.6 Chumbawamba, the British band best known for its 1997 hit “Tubthumping,” recorded a version of it. Here in the States, an even older song from England is “The Cuckoo” (also “The Coo Coo”) (1769),7 a classic that has since been covered by the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and many others.

A quick search on YouTube and music websites will turn up versions of many such tunes—as well as recordings of actual bird calls and songs, such as that of the northern mockingbird here from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, there’s no need to buy mockingbirds (which, if you’re curious, is illegal), cuckoos, or any other bird. Just go online or, better yet, venture outside!

Sources:

  1. “Hush, Little Baby.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: https://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/SBoA164.html. (Note that variations of this tune exist, some for instance using “Mamma” and others “Pappa.”)
  2. Audubon, JJ. “John J. Audubon’s Birds of America: Plate 21: Mockingbird.” National Audubon Society: https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/mocking-bird.
  3. “Mockingbirds.” Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mockingbirds.
  4. Kimball, R, Emmet, L (editors). The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 48.
  5. Tyler, D. Hit Songs, 1900–1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007. pp. 9–10.
  6. “The Cutty Wren.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/DTcutywr.html.
  7. “The Cuckoo.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/R049.html.

 

A Feast for the Eyes?

Painting_d'Hondecoeter

Humans have long demonstrated an enormous appetite for animal flesh. At some point in history just about every creature has been hunted and considered food. And of those, birds have been among the most popular.

People think of chicken and turkey as the principal fowl for consumption. However, a few hundred years ago, the dietary range of European royalty and nobles far exceeded today’s standard domesticated fare. This is evident from both historical accounts and the fine arts.

Some Food for Thought

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art provides insights into a Western European culture obsessed with feathered trophies and wild game. In numerous works by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (like the one above), Jan Weenix (see below), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, William van Aelst, and Carstian Luyckx, ample collections of slain avifauna are depicted. From such still-life paintings, one can see that traditional meal favorites included dove, duck, goose, quail, pheasant, and partridge.

No doubt, the thematic display of limp animal carcasses, some bound and bloodstained, is disturbing to modern sensibilities. However, Europe’s aristocracy felt quite differently about these masterpieces. Patrons deemed game subjects a symbolic display of their power and wealth.1, 2 After all, the nobility were the ones who owned large estates of countryside and wilderness for hunting purposes. Moreover, some people of rising status borrowed upon this tradition as a means of conveying their own growing influence, which may explain why Rembrandt painted a self-portrait of himself holding a dead bittern by its legs.3

Painting_Weenix

A Spread Fit for a King

The practice of showcasing one’s bounty can be traced well beyond Rembrandt and this period of game paintings. Prior accounts note many medieval kings and lords holding lavish banquets where attendees dined on bittern, swan, heron, and peacock.4 Some events such as the Feast of Swans (Edward I) and the Feast of the Pheasant (Philip the Good) were held to secure support for possible military campaigns.5, 6 Flaunting one’s affluence and means was a way to advance special causes and entice cooperation.

At celebratory banquets like these, food was not merely a gustatory experience; it was employed as an over-the-top embellishment. The most famous example of these is the boar’s head with an apple lodged within its mouth.7 But such entremets and subtleties could be far more extravagant. Take for instance a baked swan that spews fire—thanks in part to a technique enhanced by alcohol-dowsed cotton!8 Special effects in the medieval culinary arts were surprisingly innovative.

The entertainment value of meals could also be used to relay a message or theme. Some hosts imparted dishes with symbolic significance, as was the case of a feast honoring the newly installed King of England Henry V. At that event the monarch’s staff served his guests a couple dozen cooked swans bearing scrolls.9

Dynamic Roles of Birds in Culture

Just as people today think of birds as something more than merely a food source, the same of course was true of Europeans ages ago. In some cases exotic feathered creatures were portrayed as living subjects, as in this d’Hondecoeter painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Birds have served many cultural functions throughout history and continue to do so. Nevertheless, there is no denying the role fowl held in Western European societies, not just as game or fine art—but simultaneously as both.

Sources:

  1. Henisch, BA. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. p. 229.
  2. Sullivan, SA. “Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern.” College Art Association. The Art Bulletin 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1980). pp. 236–243.
  3. Sullivan, SA. pp. 236–243.
  4. Henisch, BA. p. 229.
  5. Strickland, M. “Treason, Feud and the Growth of State Violence.” Given-Wilson, C, et al (editors). War, Government and Aristocracy in the British Isles, c.1150–1500: Essays in Honour of Michael Prestwich. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2008. pp. 104–107.
  6. Bowles, EA. “Instruments at the Court of Burgundy (13631467).” The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 6 (Jul., 1953). pp. 41–51.
  7. Henisch, BA. p. 229.
  8. Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 162.
  9. Henisch, BA. p. 233.