Tunes for a Monday Morning

Digital Art by Christian Schloe

I woke up to a choir of late-summer birdsong this morning, so here's a collection of "bird songs" to start the week.

Above: "The Eagle" by Scottish musicians Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thomson, from their collaborative stage show and album Northern Flyway (2014): an audio-visual production exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds. The music "draws on the field recordings of birdsong expert Magnus Robb, on Sturgeon͛'s background as a bird biologist, and on Thomson͛s home turf of Fair Isle, Shetland." It's a gorgeous album.

Below: "Union of Crows" by Salt House (Jenny Sturgeon, Lauren MacColl, Ewan MacPherson), based in Scotland. The song, written by Ewan, appears on the band's latest album, Huam (2020), which is highly recommended. Huam is a Scottish word meaning "the moan of an owl in the warm days of summer."

Above: "Jenny Wren" by singer, songwriter and folk music scholar Fay Hield (co-creator of the Modern Fairies project), performed with Sam Sweeney, Rob Habron, and Ben Nicholls. This is an original song rooted in the folk tradition, drawing on the "problematic pregnancy" theme in British balladry. Fay discusses this theme and the process of writing "Jenny Wren" here. The song appears on her deeply magical album Wrackline (2020), also highly recommended.

Below: "The Magpie," a song compiled from magpie superstitions and rhymes, performed by The Unthanks (Rachel and Becky Unthank), from Northumbria. The song appeared on their album Mount the Air (2015), and is performed here that same year.

Above: Sydney Carter's "The Crow on the Cradle," performed by the English vocal harmony trio Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Hazel Askew, Rowan Rheingans). The song appeared on their second album, Mayday (2013).

Below: "Little Sparrow" by Leyla McCalla, an American classical, folk, and Delta blues musician of Haitian heritage. The song appears on her fine solo album A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey (2016).

Above: "Cuckoo," a traditional British ballad performed by The Rheingans Sisters (Rowan and Anna Rheingans), from the Peak District. The song appeared on their second album Already Home (2019).

Below: "Cuckoo" is also part of the North American song tradition. This variant of the ballad is performed by Rising Appalachia (sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith), who draw inspiration from the folk, bluegrass, and blues of their native Georgia and the vibrantly multi-cultural music traditions of New Orleans.

From dawn to dusk, two final "bird songs" to end with:

Above: "Waiting for the Lark," a traditional song performed by folksinger and fiddle player Jackie Oates, from Staffordshire. The song appeared on her fifth solo album, Lullabies (2013).

Below: "Nest," written by Canadian folk, bluegrass, and blues musician Ruth Moody. The song appeared on her first solo album The Garden (2010).

...up in these wild skies...we'll greet the moonrise...when the day is spent....

Digital art by Christian Schloe

The digital collages above are by Christian Schloe; all rights rserved by the artist. To see more of Schloe's work, go here.

For a post on the  folklore of birds, go here.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Nightingale  photographed by John Bridges

Today's music comes from British folk singer and folk song collector Sam Lee. I'm completely in love with this young man's work, and the wide variety of collaborative projects he instigates or contributes to. If you ever have the chance to see him live, please don't miss it.  Sam's recordings of old ballads and Gypsy Traveller songs are wonderful, but hearing them live -- as they are meant to be heard -- is just extraordinary.

517aFgiAObL._SX319_BO1 204 203 200_Above: A BBC profile of Lee's "Singing With the Nightingales," an annual series of events in which folk, classical, and jazz musicians collaborate with nightingales in their natural habitats. As the website explains, guests at the nightingale gatherings are invited "not just to listen to these birds in ear-tinglingly close proximity, but to share an evening around the fire, delving into your hosts’ and guest musicians' own funds of rare songs and stories." After supper by the fire, the small audience for each event is lead "in silence and darkness into the nightingale’s habitat, not only to listen to these majestic birds, but to share in an improvised collaboration; to experience what happens when bird and human virtuosi converge in musical collaboration." The BBC video above was filmed back in 2017, but the Nightingale project continues -- and Sam has just published a fine book on the subject, which I highly recommend.

Below: "The Garden of England," a re-working of the folk classic "Seeds of Love" (the very first song collected by Cecil Sharpe). It appears on his latest album Old Wow, a collection of old songs molded into new forms for our troubled times. "I feel like we are living in the age of extinction, culturally as well as ecologically,” he explains in an interview. “My hope is that by looking to the past we can strengthen our resolve to protect the future. What I’m doing is making the richest compost I possibly can." 

Above: A live recording of "The Moon Shines Bright," re-working "Wild Mountain Thyme" and classic Romany folk themes, accompanied by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. The song appears on Old Wow.

Below: "Blackbird," a traditional British Traveller song peformed in Amsterdam, with Jonah Brody on piano, Joshua Green on percussion, amd Flora Curzon on violin. The song appeared on an earlier album, The Fade in Time.

Above: "The Blind Beggar," performed with Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann at the Foundling Museum in London as part of their Broadside Ballads project. A broadside, the three musicians explain, "is a single sheet of inexpensive paper printed on one side, often with a ballad, rhyme, news and sometimes with woodcut illustrations. Broadside ballads, from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, contain words and images once displayed and sung daily in Britain’s streets and inns. Although part of living traditions of folksong, popular art and literature, these illustrated printed sheets are now rare and preserved in only a few libraries." In developing the project, they spent time researching the ballads at the Bodleian, and then created new contemporary arrangements for these historic songs.

Below: "Lord Gregory" (Child Ballad #76) performed with the Choir of World Cultures (directed by Barbara Morgenstern) from Berlin.


For more on Gypsy/Traveller songs, see the short film Ballad Lands: Jonny O' the Brine (about Sam's apprenticeship to Scottish Traveller Stanley Robertson); and his talk about how he became involved with the Travellers and their songs as a young Jewish man from London.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Wild geese in flight

On a quiet summer morning in Devon, as birdsong fills the woodland behind my studio, here is music in appreciation of our winged neighbours everywhere....

Above:  "The Lark Ascending" by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), performed by violinist Hilary Hahn with Camerata Salzburg at the George Enescu Festival, 2013. Williams' composition was inspired by George Meredith's poem of the same name.

Below: "The Wild Dove, Opus 110," by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), performed by the Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen in Belgium in 2012. (The video will direct you over to YouTube to hear this one.)

Above: "The Blackbird," a short piece for flute and piano by French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), performed by Kenneth Smith on flute and Matthew Schellhorn on piano. Messiaen was a passionate ornithologist as well as a musician, and spent a great deal of time in the wild studying birdsong.

Below: "Cantus Arcticus, Op.61" by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), performed by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. In this piece, the conventional instrumental soloist is replace with taped birdsong from Arctic Finland.

Above: "Bird Concerto with Pianosong" by British composer Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), performed by Ensemble X, at Cornell University in upstate New York, 2018.

Below: "songbirdsongs, movement 5, morning dove" by American composer John Luther Adams, performed by Sandbox Percussion on marimba, with Jessica Sindell, Martha Aarons, Zack Patten, and John Luther Adams on ocarinas, at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, 2018.

And one more to end with, above: "The Gannets" by Scottish composers Inge Thomson and Jenny Sturgeon, from their gorgeous album, Northern Flyway (2014), exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds in the northern isles of Scotland.

Gannets over the Shetlands

One more post for the feathered ones

Bird Girls by Terri Winding

Bird Mother by Terri Windling
Why I Need the Birds
by Lisel Mueller (1924-2020)

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together --
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.


"Why I Need the Birds" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Having long been one of my favourite poets, I was saddened to learn of Ms. Mueller's death earlier this year, at age 96. The New York Times obituary noted that her "elegant work drew on nature, her experiences as a parent, folklore, and history, including her own flight from Nazi Germany as a teenager." I particularly recommend her folklore poems ("Why We Tell Stories," "Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny," etc.), but the full range of her work is quietly devastating in its power.

Some years ago I plucked up the courage to write for permission to reprint one of her poems in my Armless Maiden anthology (raising money for at-risk children) -- and she responded by writing and donating a beautiful new poem instead. Her kindness will never be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.

Bird Sisters by Terri Windling

Lisel Muller photographed by Lucy Mueller

Words: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems was published by Louisiana State University Press, 1996; all rights reserved by the author's estate. Pictures: The paintings and drawing above are by me today. All rights reserved.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Photograph by Sophie Hale

As a follow-up to last week's music, here are a few more songs with the rustle of wings, dedicated to the birds who fill the quiet of pandemic lockdown with glorious song.

Above: "Seven Hundred Birds" by Monika Gromek's band Quickbeam, from Glasgow, Scotland. The atmospheric video was filmed in the hills of Cumbria. 

Below: "Starlings" by Welsh composer and guitarist Toby Hay. The song first appeared on his Birds EP -- five songs inspired by starlings, ravens, curlews,  and red kites. It can also be found on his fine album The Gathering, which came out last year.

Above: "The Lark" performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from South Yorkshire, with Nic Jones, based here in Devon. The song appeared on her album The Girl Who Couldn't Fky (2005).

Below: "Hour of the Blackbird" performed by Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere), from Dorset, accompanied by Lee Cuff (from Kadia) on cello. The song appeared on their album The Waters and the Wild (2018).

Above: "The Sweet Nightingale" performed by folksinger and fiddle/viola player Jackie Oates, from Staffordshire. The song appeared on her album Saturnine (2010)

Below: Lal Waterson's "The Bird," performed by Oates on her album The Joy of Living (2018).

Above: "What's the Use of Wings," written by Brian Bedford, performed by Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood, a singer/songwriter from Oxfordshire. Oates and Henwood are accompanied here by video clips of starling murmurations, and Pete Thomas on double bass.

Below: "The Wren and the Salt Air" by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon (of Salt House), inspired by the wildlife and human history of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. (St. Kilda was discussed in a previous post here.) I also recommend Sturgeon's album Northern Flyway with Inge Thomson (from the Shetland Isles): a musical exploration of birdsong, ecology, folklore, and themes of migration (discussed in a previous post here).

Above: "The Cuckoo" performed by British folk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker on their EP The Birds (2017).

Below: "Hushabye" by the great Northumbrian piper Kathrine Tickell, and her band the Darkening. It's from their new album Hollowbone (2020), with a new video by Marry Waterson.

Starling Murmuration by Sophie Hale

Images above: Starling murmurations on the Isle of Wight, photographed by Sophie Hale, 2019. (All rights reserved by the artist.)