The Bird seems to be a very useful metaphor. Poets and songwriters have used it since forever, to signify freedom (or the lack of it), happiness, harmony, love – and women. Here’s a selection of notable songs about birds: the metaphors are inescapable and, to be sincere, I haven’t found actual ornithological tunes. Not even in the Top 10 popular songs about or related to birds page at the California Audubon Society website.
The Andrews Sisters: The Woodpecker Song (1940)
There was a time when Pop songs were supposed to cheer you up. Of course there were sad songs, but the upper part of the charts were almost exclusively occupied by merry tunes. This is obviously no longer the case, for a number of reasons. Moreover, listening to some of the songs from back then is an awkward experience: where they really so mindlessly optimistic?
It was clearly a simpler world, and the songs reflect that. I recently heard some of the Mary Poppins tunes again, and although I admire the songwriting craft (of the Sherman brothers, legendary Disney authors, and the subject of affectionate yet disturbing documentary, The Boys), they really feel like they belong to another time – although I was five when the film was released.
The same goes for The Woodpecker Song. Which is an italian song, Reginella Campagnola, written in 1939 by Eldo di Lazzaro (who only has a german Wikipedia page) and still regularly performed on the Liscio circuit in Italy. Liscio is traditional italian ballroom dancing: born in the 1800s in Romagna, on the eastern coast of northern Italy, it’s still very popular, mostly among senior citizens. A Liscio party is a sight to behold. Fortunately we have YouTube: here’s singer Sabrina Musiani in the show Canta Lombardia (a minor cult for italian trash Tv fans), on local Lombardy station Antenna 3, lip-syncing Reginella Campagnola and driving the elderly insane.
Reginella Campagnola features no birds (it’s a “country” tune of a different, ancient country). The Woodpecker only appears in the novelty english version, recorded almost simultaneously in 1940 by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra☊ (feat. Marion Hutton on vocals), Kate Smith☊ and The Andrews Sisters. Miller’s version went to #1 in the Pop charts, but my favorite Woodpecker song is The Sisters’: they have an amazing sound, that has really come to signify the spirit of the 1940s. Although yes, I agree: that Tick-a-tick-tick, tick-a-tick-tick bothers me a bit too.
Charlie Parker: Ornithology (1946)
This must be the ultimate avian tune, as Parker’s nickname was Bird (hence the title). It’s also one of the most iconic melodies of Bebop, the revolutionary 1940s Jazz style that changed the form forever. Ornithology was recorded in 1946 with his septet (that featured Miles Davis on trumpet, Lucky Thompson on tenor sax and Dodo Marmarosa on piano), when Parker was at the top of his game (he died in 1954 at the age of 34: the doctor who performed the autopsy estimated Parker’s age to be between 50 and 60). A classic example of how Jazz constantly recycled itself (when copyright protection was a bit more reasonable), this tune is a contrafact, a new melody written over the harmony of another song, in this case the Benny Goodman standard How High the Moon☊. Incredible musicianship from the “Jimi Hendrix of Jazz” (or viceversa, if you prefer), often forgotten in the list of the most influential popular musicians ever.
The Beatles: Blackbird (1968)
I’m not a Beatles fan, and specifically I’m not a Paul McCartney fan, but this tune is a miracle. It belongs to one of the strangest (and most fetishized) albums in the history of Pop: The Beatles or, as it’s called by everyone, The White Album. A double LP that was able to accommodate Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (“granny music shit”, according to Lennon*) and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Helter Skelter (“one of the key tracks that led Charles Manson to believe the album had coded messages referring to apocalyptic war”*) and Back in the U.S.S.R, Rocky Raccoon and many more. This is also the album that somewhat initiates the band’s implosion.
Blackbird is a Paul McCartney song, although it follows the Beatles’ rule and is credited to Lennon too. It was recorded as a guitar/vocals performance (for guitar nerds, it’s a Martin D 28), with the bird sounds and a second vocal track overdubbed later. The tapping that sounds like a metronome apparently is McCartney’s foot tapping, miked separately.
As it often happens with the Beatles, their interpretation of the songs changes with time, and McCartney has given various versions. He has said he was inspired by hearing the call of a blackbird one morning when he was studying meditation in India*. He also recalls writing it in Scotland as a response to racial tensions escalating in the United States during the spring of 1968*. Later he explained that “bird” is British slang for girl, making “blackbird” a synonym for “black girl”*. The truth is that songs shouldn’t ever be explained – especially by their authors. And specifically one of the most magical, beloved and covered tunes in the history of Popular music.**
** Moreover, I think it’s obvious who the Blackbird is: you, me, everybody. We’ve all been that bird at some point in our lives. That’s why this song is so powerful.
Inez and Charlie Foxx: Mockingbird (1963)
Unfortunately this song is not about the eponymous bird, quite an interesting animal. “Best known for the habit of mimicking the songs of other birds and the sounds of insects and amphibians, some types of mockingbirds are known to lay alien eggs, or eggs that are lain in another bird’s nest. The mockingbirds’ offspring will force the other nest inhabitants from the nest, taking all the food from the parents and forcing the foster-parents to rear them” (from Wikipedia). Still, the song has an interesting story. Mockingbird is (brother and sister) Inez and Charlie Foxx’s version of the traditional american lullaby Hush Little Baby. I didn’t know it, so I looked for it on YouTube, and I found this animated version♾. View it with caution: after just a minute of Hush Little baby, you might not be able to remember any other music.
Mockingbird follows the same structure, it has no chorus but interlocking vocal parts and a repetitive structure. This song has at least one sister tune, that probably inspired it. In 1955, bluesman and guitar extravagant Bo Diddley named a song after himself. In Bo Diddley♾, he sings:
Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring,
If that diamond ring don’t shine,
He gonna take it to a private eye,
If that private eye can’t see
He’d better not take the ring from me.
Everybody, have you heard?
He’s gonna buy me a Mockingbird
Oh, if that Mockingbird don’t sing
He’s gonna buy me a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring don’t shine
He’s gonna surely, break this heart of mine
And that’s why, I keep tellin him that’s exactly
Whoa, ho, ho, I, all I know is…
There’s a notable Mockingbird version by Carly Simon and James Taylor☊, released in 1974. The arrangement is poppy, yet the vocal parts are pretty amazing: Taylor is a great voice craftsman, and the arrangement works. But Inez and Charlie Foxx are a true powerhouse, and their beat is merciless (no wonder Mockingbird is still a staple of Northern Soul parties). Unfortunately they weren’t able to replicate the success of this (also somewhat novelty) tune, and slowly faded out of the scene.
Patti Smith: Birdland☊ (1975) A nine minutes poetry trip in the mind of Patti Smith, from her first album. Based upon A Book of Dreams, a 1973 memoir of Wilhelm Reich written by his son, this is one of the most effective performances by the Mother of Punk ever recorded (follow the link to hear the song and read the lyrics).
Weather Report: Birdland☊ (1977) This quirky instrumental, dedicated to one of the most important jazz venues ever (named after Charlie Parker) is one of the very few Jazz tunes to go mainstream since the fifties. Thanks to its infectious melody, and a handful of inspired covers (including an acrobatic Vocalese version by Manhattan Transfer♾), Birdland has become a modern standard.
Rick Dees and his Cast of Idiots: Disco Duck☊ (1976) Written by a Radio DJ as a satirical tune (featuring a duck voice and sound effects), it sold in millions, and it’s even been used in the movie Saturday Night Fever, the ultimate Disco visual testament.
Johnny Cash: The Great Speckled Bird☊ (1959) Obscure theology for the masses: “The interpretation as it was meant, is of a mobbing of the false churches against the true Church, the Bride of Christ. The Great Speckled Bird in these lyrics represents the body of Christ and the song speaks of the rapture of His Church before the Great Tribulation period.” (from Wikipedia)
The Time: The Bird♾ (1984) ” America, have you heard? Got a sexy new dance it’s called The Bird. You don’t need no finesse or no personality, you just need two arms and attitude.” Watch them sing, and dance it, from Prince’s movie Purple Rain.
Prince: When Doves Cry (1984) Also from Purple Rain, “This is what it sounds like when doves cry”. Unfortunately we’ll never know, as Prince is not on YouTube (or better: he is, but with the audio muted♾, “due to a claim by a copyright holder” – ie himself; the effect is very bizarre). But you can hear a number of covers of the song, and even learn how to play it♾ from a burly and not very princey american gentleman.