If the Human Spirit Had Wings

cagedBluebirds

We look up to songbirds. Literally, of course, as when tilting our heads toward their tree-branch perches, but, moreover, metaphorically. Colorful bundles of energy, capable of such pleasant songs and distant journeys, these little creatures easily stir the imagination. What better symbols for the human spirit and its highest aspirations?

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Musicians and writers have often viewed our winged neighbors as emblematic of humankind’s greatest qualities, those aspects that inspire us, that make us feel whole. Feelings that lighten our state of being, for instance, can easily be likened to birds in flight. Such sensations people usually describe as elevated, as if no longer weighted, effortlessly able to rise up off the ground and towards the sky.

Joy is such an emotion, both beautiful and at times fleetingly whimsical. Birds are sometimes thought to embody it. You’ve likely heard of the bluebird of happiness. Well, Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Six Acts, an early twentieth-century children’s drama about the search for this small creature of delight, may have given birth to this now-popular expression in Western culture (1). Of course, many poems celebrate birds for the joy they provide. Percy Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark” and William Ernest Henley’s “The Blackbird” are just a couple examples.

Compassionate and wishful aspiration is another emotional state that can be depicted as bird-like, descending to comfort us with its uplifting song. Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” speaks of how such optimism “perches in the soul”.   Even as it provides its tune in the harshest of circumstances, the little one never begs for a “crumb” (2). Another poem of comparable sentiment, “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, relates the comfort serendipitously discovered from a little creature’s “full-hearted evensong / Of joy”. Despite the cold winter wind and frost, the bird seems to offer “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware” (3).

Besides happiness and hope, birds can act as proxy-symbols of a naïve desire that’s unharnessed from reason and calculating restraint, as demonstrated in Robert Graves’s short poem “Love Without Hope”. Here larks in song fly away from their young romantic captor towards a sophisticated and unattainable love interest (4). Numerous examples in verse abound, of course, involving similar characteristics.

“For the caged bird sings of freedom”

The caged or ensnared songbird, in particular, ranks among the most powerful of metaphors. Symbolic of the desire to overcome oppression, the imprisoned creature can represent both the basic needs of the individual as well as a segment of society. Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” “sings of freedom” (5), a theme taken up in Alicia Keys’s song of the same title and the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “Sympathy”. To fly is to be free, to fully express one’s nature, unhindered by others’ imposing, self-serving agendas. The profoundly spiritual appeal of such sentiment is expressed by the Biblical author of Psalms 124. Employing a similar metaphor, the scriptural song likens the “soul” of an entire nation (Israel) to an escaped bird rescued by God from its enemy captors.

A few songs present the bird within a cage as a metaphor for a dualism in which the spirit or mind animates the body.   In such a manner, for example, the necessity of being on good terms with one’s self is poignantly conveyed by a verse in Tori Amos’s “Crucify”. “You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird”, she croons, suggesting the deadening effects of guilt and suffering. Another example looks beyond this life. The narrative within Sting’s “The Language of Birds” focuses on an elderly pigeon keeper whose “soul was still trapped in the cage” (6). Only upon death is the man at last released from his own “cage” of corporeal confinement.

“Planted on the starlit golden bough”

Also invoking bird imagery, William Butler Yeats’s poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” address old age, death, and the quintessential search for the eternal. The first piece describes the speaker’s quest, alluding to some transcendent, avian-like form for his spirit, fashioned “as Grecian goldsmiths make” (7). Furthering this vision, the second poem expresses this figure as “More miracle than bird or handiwork” (8). What perhaps could we expect of a form that both seeks and represents the unbounded, the spiritual, the otherworldly? Regardless of this creature’s exact nature, Yeats taps into an allegorical power that has long associated birds with the soul, an idea that I’m hoping we can further explore later.

As Joseph Campbell noted in conversations a few decades ago with journalist Bill Moyers, “The bird is symbolic of the release of the spirit from bondage to the earth…” (9). Poets, musicians, and others within the arts have long understood this connection between our feathered neighbors and the heart’s profound yearning for freedom and happiness.

Included here are just several examples of this theme, most relatively recent. Next week’s post will look back thousands of years at some of the oldest.

Sources:

  1. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  2. Dickinson, E. “Hope is the thing with feathers”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.
  3. Hardy, T. “The Darkling Thrush”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173590.
  4. Leithauser, B. “A Poet of Piercing Valentines”, 2/13/2013. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-poet-of-piercing-valentines.
  5. Angelou, M. “Caged Bird”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948.
  6. Sting (official website), “Language of Birds” (lyrics): http://sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/596.
  7. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. First Scribner Paperback Poetry edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996. pp. 193-194.
  8. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). pp. 248-249.
  9. Campbell, J., with Moyers, B. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1991. p. 23.

Popular Bird Songs (by People)

flamingo

The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, and The Police. These are just some of the recording artists who have performed songs about or related to birds.

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.

Sources:

  1. 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.
  2. “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.
  3. 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.