THE MUSICAL HISTORY of the whippoorwill reaches in logical conclusion outside of what is strictly speaking its natural range, in the Front Range of northern Colorado.
Wyoming-raised Alysia Kraft and Texas Hill Country native Staci Foster met at the SXSW festival in Austin in 2013, exchanged songs at a porch picking party and later joined forces in Fort Collins under the moniker Whippoorwill; the bird's cry had punctuated the night of their meeting.
'For me, it's shorthand for mystery – being heard, never seen, being nocturnal – and shorthand for melancholy and loneliness in the cadence and pitch of the call,' said Kraft.
'The first time I heard the word, I just liked it. I wanted to say it over and over. I wanted to emulate the call. I like that it's three even syllables... I like the breath that has to pass through all of them. It felt natural and mystical and strong all at once to me, three qualities I wanted to go for in our music,' she added.
Kraft added that Whippoorwill also 'works visually', evoking associations just through the way it appears, an impact of form that goes beyond simply a collection of individual letters. And it speaks to people in a way that travels beyond its traditional homelands.
'If people are familiar with the whippoorwill they usually have a story about their own associations with hearing it. It is a bird people identify by its call rather than sighting,' she said. 'It's sentimental for most people (locally) because we are in the mountain west and people who have associations with the whippoorwill in nature have moved from other places. They are recalling home, usually someone who pointed the bird out to them for the first time, what associations it brings back for them.'
That said: 'People who are unfamiliar with the bird really struggle with our name. We get a lot of funny interpretations of the word from folks taking a quick glance and trying to make sense of how and why those syllables are put together. We're often called Whirlpool or Whippo-Orwell.'
The band includes a reference to the species in the song Martindale off of its 2019 release The Nature of Storms, the bird crying all night to no avail as the moon rises, in parallel to the narrator's own tears. The species will also be roped into a new song: The whippoorwill, she knows us all by the way that we call / The whippoorwill, to sing is the same thing as to cry.
Kraft again: 'We are drawn to things that are mystical, simultaneously hopeful and dark. I think we're songbirds with vocal harmonies at the forefront of how we compose, but we're more aligned with a melancholic bird of the night than a bright-singing morning bird.
'We (the band expanded in 2016 to include drummer Tobias Bank) are all very in touch with nature, inspired by experiences outdoors, and we draw metaphors for most things from the wild, from the rural, from the past, from the sentimental, from the bleak given music by the human spirit, love, beauty.'
And it is ultimately that underlying duality that gives the whippoorwill, and Whippoorwill, its power. 'The call is hopeful,' said Kraft. 'Set against the backdrop of the night, the darkness is what makes the call so lonesome, and so magical.'
It is a relevance, a cultural touchstone, a folk history to which other oft-referenced species in the musical landscape -- cuckoo, dove, owl, loon, mockingbird, crow, blackbird, hawk, kingfisher, eagle and even turkey or rooster -- can only aspire.
HANK WILLIAMS died in the early hours of 1 January 1953 in the back seat of a car travelling on a mountain road between Bristol, Tennessee and Oak Hill, West Virginia.
He was on his way to perform a New Year's Day concert in Canton, Ohio, with the weather having put paid to a planned gig the night before in Charleston, West Virginia. The generally accepted story is that he was the victim of heart failure brought on by alcohol mixed with prescribed medicines including chloral hydrate and morphine; there are a number of variations.
It was winter and it was snowing so it seems unlikely that a whippoorwill would have been in attendance with its plaintive cry. But this is country music, this is legend and this is folklore, so we will be forgiven for imagining that an otherworldly, ornithological promise of deliverance from the pain, suffering and evils of this world was the last thing Hank Williams ever heard.
As a postscript of sorts, the association of Williams and the whippoorwill outlasted the confines of death. Alone and Forsaken, recorded in 1949 but not released until 1955, returned to themes of loss and isolation:
The roses have faded, there's frost at my door / The birds in the morning don't sing anymore / The grass in the valley is starting to die / And out in the darkness the whippoorwills cry / Alone and forsaken by fate and by man / Oh, Lord, if You hear me please hold to my hand
The track is one of the lesser known but still oft-covered Hank Williams songs. Artists across Americana, country, folk, bluegrass, alt-country, alt-folk, punk and rock have made the mournful, resonant, otherworldly, redemption-seeking lyric one of their own.
Much like the whippoorwill.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.