It also happens to be one of the most often referenced birds in the world of old-time, bluegrass and early country music. Of course there are lots of “birds,” cuckoo birds, bluebirds, blackbirds, pretty birds, little birds (birdies). But the whippoorwill is specifically mentioned in almost a dozen songs that came up on the ever-so-helpful site, BluegrassLyrics.Com. Another search on Lyrics.Net yielded sixteen pages of songs that mentioned the cherished feathered creature. I was pleased to see some of the songs had been published as recent as 2014, however the majority of them recorded and released before 1970 by known favorites such as Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, among many others.
As a friend and I made our way through the maze of early evening traffic listening to Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, I heard the whippoorwill mentioned in a song that unfortunately now escapes my memory. But I thought at the time, “geez, the whippoorwill must be some kind of bird to be written about so much.” With the convenience of hand held technology I whipped out my phone and Googled the bird. For reasons I can’t say I assumed this bird would be, in relative terms, elegant, plump and round. Perhaps it was white with yellow feathers. A long beak. And when it spread its broad, graceful wings, you could see the sun shine through them on a warm summer day. Boy, was I wrong.
Short, sturdy legs, slight and compact body with a flattened head allow the whippoorwill to rummage through the forest floor searching for food in the leaf litter. Delights such as, but not limited to spiders, caterpillars and butterflies, have found themselves within the grasp of its short, pointed beak. Its marvelously camouflaged plumage, considering you could see it to begin with, make it easy to mistake it for a bullfrog or toad. Actually, one whippoorwill picture I found online reminded me of a beloved Panther chameleon I once owned named Athena. Mottled dark and light brown feathers with white speckles grant almost unperceivable access to the backwood treasures of the eastern forests of North America.
But it’s not the comely appearance that’s got everyone singing about it, quite the contrary. It seems that the elegance, beauty and grace of the bird are found within its lonesome song. Probably the sweetest fact I learned about the whippoorwill is that its name is actually onomatopoeia of its call. ….Whip…poor…will……. Like learning a new song, I took note of the birds phrasing. Quickly and sharply (well, like a whip, I suppose) the “whip” punches through the early morning light. Equally brisk and tight the “poor” follows with a subtle lower tone. And almost as if to scoop everything up, the “will” concludes its clear and bright call. Whip-poor-will….
Its dreary and lonesome reputation may be due to its nocturnal lifestyle. It sleeps during the day only to wake at dusk to forage for food and go about its life. Given that its winter range is in the southeastern US and Mexico, it makes perfect sense that most of the songs reference the bird at night, when the quiet of rural life was haunted by its elusive and desolate song.
Thinking (maybe feeling?) the deeper emotion in the lyrics of some of these songs I travelled back in time…… Now I was sitting atop the hill over looking the dense valley. The sun was setting. A brief moment of silence and then there it was, the solitary call of the whippoorwill. Ducking below the horizon, my heart sank like the sun, longing again for the love I once knew. It called again. Now I was standing at the station and the chill of the night smacked my cheeks. Would he be on this train? Waiting, longing, for him, the train made its way through town. Dense smoke spilled into the evening sky as I caught a glimpse of the whippoorwill in a thicket by the tracks. Clutching my hat in my hands, its almost as if the whippoorwill could read my desperate heart. Its call predicted a forsaken love affair, as I stood silent and alone in the darkness.
Coming back into the present I pondered on how many people have been touched by the song of the whippoorwill. Those people who may have found solace in their hearts or minds, maybe they were inspired or forged a new path ahead? Then I started to think about our world today. How so much of our time is taken up by doing things. Reading things. Going places. Saying words. Directing others. Taking orders. Controlling uncontrollables. Feeding fears. Loving friends. Risking lives. The list goes on doesn’t it? We can go on all day about what we do, who we do it for, why we do it. We make excuses and reasons to defend and rationalize our doing, saying, taking, feeding.
How often are we listening though? How often do we just stop and unplug from all that stuff and simply listen. Listen for our whippoorwill. Listen for that thing that might just be our next inspiration. That thing that makes all of this more real, tactile and full of depth and humanity. What is your whippoorwill?
A few excerpts of some of my favorite songs referencing the whippoorwill:
“In a quiet country village stood a maple on the hill
Where I sat with my Geneva long ago
As the stars are shining brightly you could hear the whippoorwill
As we sat beneath the maple on the hill”
– Maple on the Hill, Carter Family version
“The wind through the night is blowing so lonesome
Singing to me a song
The whippoorwill call is just a reminder
Pretty girls have hearts made of stone”
– Cora is Gone, Flatt & Scruggs version
“Our love was planted little darling
Just like the farmer plants his grain
But there will never be a harvest
On the hills the whippoorwills now sing”
– The First Whippoorwill, Bill Monroe version
“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whinin’ low
I’m so lonesome, I could cry”
– I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry, Hank Williams