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.

 

One Song, Twelve Days, and at Least 184 Birds

12Days

‘Tis the season for that peculiar Christmas carol, the one about a repeated litany of mostly live gifts, including dozens upon dozens of fowl, great and small—“The Twelve Days of Christmas”, a song that features more than enough birds for a large aviary!

Unfortunately, the winged creatures named in this tune—at least six different types—were likely included for another reason, as all of them have made their way onto dinner plates in Europe at one time or another. Mike Bergin, birder and founder of the website 10,000 Birds, offers a particularly enlightening post on this song and its “astonishing insight into the extravagant gifting conventions and ravenous appetite for bird flesh in England during the Baroque era” (1). Of course, much of the poultry named throughout this Christmas carol are still consumed today, but some much more regularly than others.

A Little History behind the Occasion and the Carol

For a better grasp of the context involving the song’s many birds, let’s consider a few things. First, the Twelve Days of Christmas occur from Christmas through January 5th. Secondly, as part of this long tradition, a feast day is held afterwards on January 6th marking the Christian celebration of Epiphany (2). So the inclusion of game birds throughout this song makes quite a bit of sense. Some people have even speculated that the golden rings introduced on the fifth day may actually refer to ring-necked pheasants (3). Anyway, the dozen types of gifts, with the exception of the golden rings (if taken literally as finger trinkets), could be considered either of entertainment or gastronomic value—all important for a large celebratory banquet commemorating the Magi’s visit to the Christ child.

As for the Christmas carol, evidence indicates that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has its origins as a “Twelfth Night ‘memory-and-forfeits’ game”, a function noted in the first printed version of the song around 1780; and the game may have developed earlier in France (4). We do know that neither the song nor the game is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. However, his play likely preceded the Christmas carol, for the former was composed possibly as early as 1599 (5).

Bird Gifts Galore

When talking about such seemingly disparate things as geese-a-laying, maids-a-milking, and ladies dancing, context is critical. As mentioned earlier, the birds cited throughout “The Twelve Days of Christmas” have historically been used for food. The most obvious ones are the French hens and geese-a-laying, feast items today with a long culinary history. Like chickens, the greylag goose has been domesticated in Europe for centuries, its meat and eggs both used as food (6). The mentioning of both these birds in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” easily suggests some relevance to a large celebratory meal.

Due to changes in cultural and culinary preferences, the other birds may seem less obvious today as menu options. The partridge, the only fowl that appears every day on the song’s daily gift list, was “frequently served at medieval tables, where it was prized for its tender flesh” (7). It’s still consumed at dinner tables but ranks in popularity far behind larger poultry such as the chicken and turkey.

The turtle-dove, albeit symbolic of romantic love, has been desired for centuries by the stomach as well as the heart. After all, dovecots, structures built for housing pigeons and other small birds until ready for the table, were common in the Middle Ages and sometimes contained turtle-doves (8). Clearly the appreciation of a bird’s pleasing appearance and positive associations was not enough to safeguard it from the most basic of human instincts—hunger.

Today we value mute swans primarily for their beauty. But in the past, these large, graceful birds also made their way into English feasts (9). For instance, they were eaten on important occasions, such as Christmas (10). While the meat is reportedly not considered succulent, it clearly had its share of enthusiasts (11). One reason may have been its size, for an adult male mute swan can weigh more than 50 pounds (12). Scholar Venetia Newell also reminds us, “Chaucer says of his worldly monk in The Canterbury Tales (1387): ‘A fat swan loved he best of any roast’…” (13). Of course, the bird’s popularity as poultry for England’s aristocracy and grand feasts has significantly waned since that time.

Blackbird Pie?                                  

Finally, we have colly birds, the fowl that was consumed primarily by the lower classes. Although in some versions the gifts are “calling birds” (as in caged songbirds such as canaries, starlings, and the like), the first printed version of the song uses “colly”, a word describing something that has been blackened, as if by soot or coal (14). So, in that case, we are actually talking about European blackbirds, which belong to the thrush family (15, 16).

People supposedly ate colly birds, while others apparently enjoyed watching live ones endure a cruel (but fortunately infrequent) dining practice. The birds, inserted inside a baked pastry that had been taken out of the oven to cool, were forced to entertain upper-class dinner guests by erupting from the served pie, as described in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (17, 18). That poem, of course, refers to a pastry made with 24 of these creatures. By the conclusion of our Christmas song, the “true love” has handed out 36 blackbirds—an ample amount for one and a half of these large dishes. “Calling birds”, to me, seem much more preferable.

All in all, we have 184 birds given over the Twelve Days of Christmas. And if you consider the “five golden rings” as intending pheasants, the tally grows to 224. No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of birds. You either have a major holiday feast in the works—one perhaps to end all feasts—or a heckuva re-gifting nightmare!

Sources:

  1. Bergin, M. “Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas”, 12/25/13, 10,000 Birds: http://10000birds.com/birds-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas.htm.
  2. “Epiphany”, 10/7/11, BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/epiphany.shtml.
  3. Bergin, M.
  4. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, 12/24/13, Snopes.com: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp
  5. Shakespeare, W. Bevington, D. (editor). The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Fourth Edition. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997. p. 326.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 80, 88.
  7. Heck, C., and Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 488.
  8. Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 77.
  9. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 90.
  10. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  11. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 90.
  12. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 3.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 60.
  14. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, 12/24/13, Snopes.com.
  15. Bergin, M.
  16. O’Connor, M. “The Twelve Days of Christmas Explained: Is it Calling, Collie or Colly Birds?”, 12/24/10, Bird Watcher’s General Store: http://www.birdwatchersgeneralstore.com/TwelveDays.htm.
  17. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 467-468.
  18. Scully, T. p. 109.

Not just another Blog on Birds

First Post Pic-Triptic

This blog is dedicated to the significant roles birds play in our everyday lives. Testimony to our feathered friends’ importance, of course, already lies in the many websites that provide tips for birdwatchers, instructions for setting up bird-feeding stations, and forums for photographs and first-person accounts from birders. Such online resources offer abundant materials for learning more about these wonderful winged creatures. But this blog seeks to make something available online that’s a little different but also essential, focusing instead on the cultural influence of birds upon human society and the numerous ways in which they have enriched and continue to impact our world.

We exist with all things, including birds, in relationship, and not in a vacuum or isolation. So the weekly posts here will seek to explore how our current and historical depictions of birds can help us better understand ourselves, appreciate their influence, and improve our interaction with them. After all, humans’ relationship with class Aves is extensive, spanning back further than civilization itself. Evidence from diverse locations ages ago reveal how birds influenced the earliest forms of art and religion. Ornithologist Tim Birkhead explains, “Images of birds decorate the walls of European caves; in Africa the forms of birds were chipped out of slabs of hot, red sandstone; and in Arctic chambers the skulls of great auks were placed alongside the dead to accompany them to the next world” (1). Over time, ideas about birds developed throughout all cultures into countless myths, legends, and superstitions.

Birds also figure prominently in world literature, religious scriptures, and other stories. In the Bible, we find several instances, such as Noah’s dove (Genesis 8: 8-12) and Elijah’s ravens (I Kings 17: 2-6). Other notable examples exist in Aesop’s Fables, the Buddhist Jataka, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr (The Conference of Birds), and tales collected by Hans Christian Andersen (e.g., “The Ugly Duckling”) and the Brothers Grimm (e.g., “The Six Swans”). Even William Shakespeare’s plays frequently refer to bird folklore.

Poets, of course, have long been fascinated by birds. Nobel laureate Pablo Naruda dedicated an entire book to them with his Arte de Pajaros (Art of Birds). One of Ted Hughes’ most well-known books remains his Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. His wife Sylvia Plath, however, seemed drawn to the rook, another member of the Corvidae family, which appears in at least four of her poems. Perhaps the bird best known from poetry remains the nightingale, memorialized in classical mythology and having inspired important works by T.S. Eliot, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Milton.

Folktales and legends about birds have also informed classical music masterpieces, including P.I. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and Richard Wagner’s operas Seigfried and Lohengrin. Also, some songbirds even have interesting connections to famous composers. For instance, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling that could sing part of his Concerto in G Major (2, 3). Antonio Vivaldi found the European goldfinch a worthy enough muse to name a flute concerto for it (Il Gardellino). And British musician David Hindley has discovered similarities in the skylark’s song with aspects of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the woodlark’s with J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (the 48 Preludes and Fugues) (4, 5).

Humankind’s affection for birds has infiltrated just about every aspect of our culture, including movies, fine art, advertising, sports, common idiomatic expressions, and pop songs. It also has impacted history in some interesting ways. So this blog will not just be another website on birds. It will look at how we humans view our winged neighbors, hopefully illustrating the many invaluable functions that birds provide for us.

Sources:

  1. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 3.
  2. Ibid. p. 259.
  3. West, M.J., and King, A.P., “Mozart’s Starling”, American Scientist, 1990, 78: pp. 106-14.
  4. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. pp. 23, 52.
  5. Davies, G.H. “Bird Songs”, PBS: http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/songs.