Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Great Speckled Bird

Today is Easter Sunday, and I woke up this morning thinking of songs about animals. My thoughts inevitably turned to songs about birds, and perhaps because it is Easter, the one that first came to mind was The Great Speckled Bird (click the link for the lyrics). Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the lyrics were apparently written by the Reverend Guy Smith. The image of the “speckled bird,” most experts agree, is a reference to Jeremiah 12:9: Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her. The use of “heritage” here means the life one must lead as a consequence of the way one was “raised,” but also the one determined by dint of personality: in contrast to an oral tradition, in which thought is spirit, from the outside (as from God), the song is an example of psyche, the experience of literacy, in which thought comes from within. Although the lyrics would suggest gospel music inspirations (they were written by a minister, after all), the music was inspired by a song from the secular realm, and as such the song would seem to be a fierce statement of self-reliance, perseverance, and the perils of the individual within a mass society. Most sources I’ve come across claim the melody is traditional, used first (in recorded history; it is no doubt much older) in “I Am Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” a song recorded in the 1920s. The same melody was also used in Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” and in Kitty Wells’ answer song to “The Wild Side of Life,” titled “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” To my knowledge, the fact that the four songs all used the same melody was first pointed out, in recorded form anyway, by David Allan Coe, on the best album he ever did, RIDES AGAIN (1977), and the song, “Punkin Center Barn Dance.”

Despite the lyrics’ rather obvious allegorizing and the rhetoric of righteousness, the Modernist influence is quite noticeable — using difficulty as a means to protect an art work from mass appropriation. The lyrical content of “The Great Speckled Bird” is elusive for many listeners, as I discovered after a short web search. Hence, while the song has been recorded many times the past seventy years and is something of a country music “standard,” its meaning is hardly transparent.

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