THE WHIPPOORWILL, which in modern ex-rural life will not universally have been heard crying in the night, nevertheless punches well above its weight.
This, according to Geoffrey S LeBaron, Christmas Bird Count Director at the National Audubon Society and therefore a man who knows whereof he speaks, can be traced back to the species' tendency to favour the sorts of pine barrens and successional deciduous forests that were at their peak in the late 19th and early 20th century, as agriculture gave way to the return of woodlands across the US east coast.
The bird, on that basis, was approaching its maxima in terms of numbers and spread, and the range of its distinctive call, precisely during the formative years of what was becoming a shared, more singular American culture.
LeBaron further pointed out that the 'cryptic' species is at its most vocal at the exact moment when humans are changing their own activity patterns, ie shifting between daylight work hours and a more leisurely focus on family, community or recreation. Combine the whippoorwill's dusk and dawn performance with man's traditional fear of the dark, the time for telling stories and/or the rebirth of each new day, and you have the perfect recipe for folklore, legend and myth to develop and thrive.
It should therefore comes as a surprise to no one, given the juxtaposition of the 19th century American population with the bird's territorial and so folklore footprint – and hopefully bringing this all back to the music – that the whippoorwill featured in at least a handful of songs well before Hank Williams elevated it to iconic status.
And it wasn't just about tapping into the bird's cultural shorthand for the feelings of loss, loneliness and regret so often at centre stage within hillbilly, blues and stringband music. In purely structural terms, the word also seems to have provided a handy way to fill space in any given metric, offered a pleasing and soothing sort of sound, and as a bonus identified the vocalist as somehow being in touch with the common people, representing an easy anchor to a shared rural geography across Appalachia and beyond. Whippoorwill at the end of a line also rhymes with a whole lot of other words, something that should probably not be overlooked.
One of the earliest recorded instances of the bird in popular music is found in The Birth of the Blues, composed by Ray Henderson with lyrics by BG DeSylva and Lew Brown:
Now from a whippoorwill / Sittin' high on a hill / They took a new note / And they pushed it through a horn / Until it was worn into a blue note
The song, according to broadway database IBDB, featured in a follies-style production from 1926 called George White's Scandals. The show ran for around 12 months at the Apollo Theatre in New York.
The whippoorwill in this telling is credited for the inherent sadness of the blues and, in the following stanza, is also linked directly with rural southern life (They gave out the news / That the South Land really gave birth to the blues): it is a one-two punch of 'rural' and 'sad' that follows this particular nightjar wherever it goes. That it was offered up to a New York City audience without wider explanation suggests how deeply the symbolism had penetrated the American psyche.
The Birth of the Blues, with whippoorwill in tow, escaped the physical stage and took its place on the national one via the medium of the country's rapidly-expanding popular music sector; it is listed as being recorded in the 1920s by bandleader Paul Whiteman as well as artists Harry Richman and The Revelers. The song experienced a revival of sorts in the 1950s, apropos of nothing, when it was adopted as a standard by Sammy Davis Jr and other members of the Rat Pack.
A more important milestone, in terms of the rootsier side of music history, is Charlie Poole's 1930 recording Where the Whippoorwill Is Whispering Goodnight, which with the accompaniment of banjo, guitar and fiddle is a tissue-wringing tearjerker of the highest standard:
Where she is sleeping now the whippoorwill is calling / O'er her grave the flowers are blooming fair and bright / Pearly dewdrops on the ivy leaves are falling / Where the whippoorwill is whispering goodnight
It goes on to reference the 'night-birds singing' outside a 'homestead wrapped in silent gloom', a familiar face missing from the fireside, a tender smile gone forever.
Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers recorded the song for the Columbia label in September of 1930, just eight months before Charlie died while travelling to California on the promise of work in Hollywood. Poole was, again according to Malone's Country Music USA, 'one of the earliest examples in country music of the hard-living, hard-drinking young man who burns his life away'.
It is thought Poole penned few if any of his 67 known recordings, instead acting more as 'composer', which suggests Where the Whippoorwill Is Whispering Goodnight was sourced from the community songbook around his Alamance County home in central North Carolina. Another hint, perhaps, of the extent of the whippoorwill's integration within the wider environs of American music during the period before World War II.
Other notable early appearances include the 1941 lament When It's Time for the Whippoorwill to Sing, recorded by Grand Ole Opry stars The Delmore Brothers and reaching number three on what was at the time still called the 'hillbilly hits' chart by Billboard. The track describes a planned heavenly reunion with a departed sweetheart, to be presaged by the call of the nightbird.
HANK WILLIAMS – even if he never heard any of the above, which is unlikely given what appeared to be an acute interest in the diverse musical world around him – would certainly have come across references to the whippoorwill in his travels both physical and cultural around Montgomery, Georgiana, Greenville and Mobile in Alabama.
The bird by the late 1940s was as recognisable a cultural element as the twang of the banjo, the legend of John Henry, the adventures of Huck and Tom. The resulting appearance in the opening to I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, plangent and haunting, simple and epic, not only tapped into that shared consciousness but also, through the song's exposure to a mass audience, loosed a feathered avalanche that rumbles to this day.
The bird found a ready home in the Appalachian high loneliness of bluegrass. As early as 1952 genre pioneer Bill Monroe had penned The First Whippoorwill:
I know that soon I'll have to travel / I know I'm over the hill / I feel so all alone, my darling said, she'd be gone / When I heard that first whippoorwill
The bird regularly populates the segment from that point onwards, finding a home most recently in A Lot Like the Whippoorwill, off Chaos Theory (2019) by Virginia band Deer Creek Boys. It is a sort of bluegrass pop with an upbeat presentation and lyric that strips away some of the more iconic associations of the species and instead relies on the pure sound of the word:
She's a lot like the whippoorwill / Sound of her voice still gives me chills / No matter how many times / She packs up and flies
Southern rock also embraced the bird with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils including Whippoorwill on the 1975 release The Car Over The Lake Album which, if you have a collector's eye, has a fantastic cover. The song itself is the sort of five-minute AOR ballad typical of the time and will not be to all tastes: an intro of slow vocals, quiet piano and acoustic guitar that shifts up a gear at the around 1.20 mark with drums and tempo and the lines: Oh whippoorwill / You make my heart stand still / When I hear your evening sound.
Atlanta band Blackberry Smoke, self-described as hard rock but with a definite and strong southern influence, released their album The Whippoorwill in 2012. The group was given complete control over the 13 tracks by label Southern Ground and they produced what became a fan favourite, including the title track.
It too is a more than five-minute ballad with a slow intro but with organ, piano, drums and electric guitar; it too picks up at the chorus around the one minute mark; it too is full of southern imagery including honeysuckle, bougainvillea and patchwork quilts. But whereas the Daredevils arguably underplayed their hand, Blackberry Smoke manages a message of redemption with soaring, multiplying guitar lines contrasting with lyrics of loss delivered in what could almost be a gospel tradition.
It reaches the peak of its narrative power at the bridge, which follows an instrumental break and offers a seamless segue back into the chorus:
I'm gonna sing that song with the Whippoorwill / In a sweet high harmony / Though I know just what went with her / She's always here with me
One of the most tragic incidences of the whippoorwill in modern music is the hyphenated song of the same name by Magnolia Electric Co from the 2009 release Josephine. The steely, whining and hollow twang of a dobro soars above the track's acoustic guitar before the introduction of Jason Molina's languid vocals.
The final 45 seconds features a repeated, tremolo delivery of the word whippoorwill, evocative of the bird's folklore and mystery with spooky, old-fashioned ooooohs in the background and the return of the mournful dobro to see us through to the fade at the end. That there is no direct mention of the bird until the final few lines only heightens the familiar associations of loneliness and isolation when they finally arrive; I believe it is as heartbreaking as any reference in music: Sing it sister one more time / Once for everybody who got left behind / Whip-poor-will / Oh, whip-poor-will / Whip-poor-will.
Molina died in March 2013, aged 39, as the result of organ failure linked to long-term alcoholism. Josephine was the swansong for his Magnolia Electric Co, although the musician did put out an album under his own name in 2012. If you are counting, Molina is the third musician with whippoorwill connections (in this piece) to have died too young, horizons cut short too soon, talent lost.
Pain, excess, terrible beauty.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.