IT AIN'T three chords and the truth, as the saying goes, but it is not a million miles away: Up, down, flat. Up, down, flat. WHIP-per-Will, WHIP-per-Will.
The iconic reference will conjure a legendary first verse well known to any music fan with even a passing interest in Americana, country or roots – even if when pressed they do not know exactly which song it comes from, or perhaps the longer lyric:
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill / He sounds too blue to fly / The midnight train is whining low / I'm so lonesome I could cry
The plaintive, soulful and drawn delivery of Hank Williams as recorded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in August 1949 arguably cemented what was still a relatively young commercial country tradition to its grassroots history of melancholy and heartbreak, regret and remorse.
The Herzog Studio recording was the B-side to the more upbeat My Bucket's Got a Hole in It, which despite the epic line 'My bucket's got a hole in it, I can't buy no beer' (sad in itself, albeit in a different way) is now more famous for featuring the only known Williams guitar solo than for any lasting impact on popular culture.
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry was different; here was desperate, soul-wrenching loss told in simple straightforward language to which anyone could relate, can still relate. Perhaps that is why the song has featured on the Billboard country charts on five separate occasions and was listed by Rolling Stone magazine as number three in the top 100 country songs of all time, and number 111 on the top 500 from any genre. Maybe that is why it has been covered by everyone from Glen Campbell to Johnny Cash, from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw to pop superstar Donny Osmond, from Scandinavian metalheads Volbeat to Elvis.
More importantly for the purposes of this telling, it is the song that guaranteed the humble whippoorwill its enduring if – at least to this correspondent, and so what follows – somewhat unexplained place at the heart of American music.
For whatever it is worth, and as a quick aside, Williams himself may or may not have been entirely responsible for elevating the bird to mainstream prominence; at least two chroniclers claim the lyrics, and so that indelible initial line, were actually written by Paul Gilley, a 19-year-old from Maytown, Kentucky, who offloaded the rights and the credit to the already famous Williams before subsequently repeating the deal for Cold, Cold Heart and others.
Separate versions of that controversial claim from both writer Chet Flippo and local historian W Lynn Nickell contradict the official account of Williams as songwriter, but do fit well with what was standard practice in the music publishing environment of the time; Gilley himself died in a farm pond drowning accident in 1957 at the age of 27, after which his grief-washed parents burned his belongings.
(No conspiracy theory surrounding the lyrics has yet been fully formulated, although the lack of any mention of either the song or its writing credit in Bill C Malone's epic Country Music USA, the otherwise exhaustive history of the genre, might fuel some doubts. Whatever the truth, there can be no denying the power, influence and genius of the Williams delivery.)
The remaining stanzas of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry detail nights so long and moons disappearing behind clouds, weeping robins and dying leaves, falling stars and purple skies. But it is the imagery of the whippoorwill (rather than the hyphenated whip-poor-will, as the majority of citations outside of musical tradition would have it) that most endures 71 years later.
ASSOCIATIONS between the whippoorwill and melancholy predate Hank Williams and are intrinsically linked with the crepuscular bird's WHIP-per-Will call, which is most often heard at dusk and dawn and which provides the species with its onomatopoeic handle. A number of Native American cultures consider the cries an omen of misfortune and early European settlers appropriated the lore and myth in time for Washington Irving to write in his Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) how the 'moan of the whip-poor-will from the hillside' fed schoolmaster Ichabod Crane's excited imagination as he wended his way through 'swamp and stream and awful woodland' ahead of his fateful meeting with the Headless Horseman.
The bird was said to predict storms, its call near your house meant someone inside would soon pass on, the whippoorwill could sense a soul departing and capture the lifeforce as it fled corporal confines. Mark Twain put the species to work on numerous occasions while writer and pulp magazine stalwart HP Lovecraft famously tapped into local New England folklore for The Dunwich Horror (1928) which was chockful of birds he described as 'psychopomps lying in wait', chirping under the window of the soon to be deceased evil wizard Old Whateley, 'a seemingly limitless legion of whippoorwills that cried their endless message in repetitions timed diabolically to the wheezing gasps of the dying man'.
American poets including Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley, Edgar Lee Masters and William Cullen Bryant drew regularly on its natural history and symbolism. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote of the bird being 'lonesome in the air' in his 1925 fiddle contest piece The Mountain Whippoorwill. Philosopher, poet and essayist Henry David Thoreau described it as 'a bird not only of the woods, but of the night side of the woods'; in Walden (1854) he wrote of its call spookily 'borne on the rippling wind from over the water'.
In contrast to the literary whippoorwill and putting aside the landmark cry, the real-life eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus in formal zoological parlance) is in and of itself a relatively unremarkable member of the avian world.
The bird is a medium-sized, ground-nesting woodland nightjar that more often than not goes unseen due to its camouflaged plumage and tendency to hunker down in leaves and sleep during the day all across the US eastern seaboard. It should not be confused with the Mexican whip-poor-will, prevalent in the southwest of the continent, or the territorially overlapping chuck-will's-widow, which has a lower-pitched and slower call and is sometimes known as either the chuckwuts-widow or – tremendously – as the chip-fell-out-of-a-oak.
Whip-poor-wills have very short bills and feature grey, black and brown mottled plumage on the upper sections of their bodies and grey and black below. Males of the species sport eye-catching white patches on wing tips and otherwise black throats; females must make do with light brown in those segments.
In 2018 the species was elevated to 'near threatened' on the Red List produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. An estimated population of up to 1.8 million represents a drop of more than 60 percent since 1970, due largely to habitat loss, forest degradation, urban creep and potentially a reduction in its insect larder due to pollution and pesticides.
The tendency of nightjars in general to fly around livestock at dusk to feed on swarming buglife led to the belief that the birds were suckling from udders and provided the evocative generic handle of goatsucker, which unfortunately appears to have fallen out of widespread use and which it seems – to this correspondent's great regret – never really made an impact on creatives of any description.
A group of whip-poor-wills is known as an 'invisibility' or a 'seek', for the record and just in case it ever comes up in a crossword or trivia quiz.
The hyphenated version of the name is sanctioned by the International Ornithological Congress as an exception to otherwise standard practice: 'In keeping with the trend toward greater use of single words that improve distinctiveness for the species, compound names are best spelled as single words.' However the whip-poor-will, in addition to the white-eye, wattle-eye, thick-knee and huet-huet, retains the hyphen as 'otherwise the name would be hard to pronounce or would look odd'. The IOC accepted that whip-poor-will/whippoorwill was a borderline case but that the bird list committee, at least for Version 9.2 of the document, would 'follow perceived general usage'.
For the purposes of this narrative, to be both clear and pedantic, we have adopted an anodyne position on the hyphenization question by copying the approach of the source materials to the greatest extent possible. In practice that tends to means whippoorwill when in concept, and whip-poor-will when actually feathered; but not always.
The well-thumbed Collins hardback dictionary on my reference shelf, out of interest, goes without the hyphen; the Merriam-Webster online listing takes the opposite approach.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.