The image above is by Rowena Dugdale. To see more samples or commission her work, go here.
When I put up my last For a Song feature, I wasn’t planning to make it bird week on Oliver di Place. But birds are nature’s musicians, so it only makes sense that they would be an inspiration to songwriters. And some wonderful (human) music has come from this. So, for this, you won’t even need binoculars. Let’s have a look.
Gordon Bok: The Maiden in Bird‘s Plumage
Birds turn up in traditional song all the time. Some are omens, others, sacred messengers, and still others are lovers. The Maiden in Bird’s Plumage is a Danish folk song, but it shares many features with Celtic myth and legend. The story begins with a man hunting a white hind. In Celtic lore, this is a marker, warning the listener that this will be a tale of magic, and so it is here. Soon enough, the hind transforms into a falcon. Then the hero meets the son of the forest lord, who tells him that this is an enchanted maiden, and he explains how to break the spell. Celtic lore has many tales like this, and many of them were probably sung by the bards in olden days, but this is the first time I have heard a tale like this set to music. It works beautifully.
Emmylou Harris: Little Bird
Little Bird is performed by Emmylou Harris, but it may sound like someone else to you, That’s because the song is a cowrite between Harris and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The sisters also contribute background vocals, and Kate plays accordion. Still the song suits Harris well. The bird is a messenger, to let a man know of her love, and Harris makes this one tender and completely convincing.
Dolly Parton: Raven Dove
Raven Dove is a prayer. Dolly Parton believes in a Heavenly savior, and here the bird becomes a messenger from God, delivering a promise of peace. This one has just enough gospel trimmings, but with a wonderful mostly acoustic arrangement, featuring mandolin and dobro.
Joni Mitchell: Black Crow
Of course, Black Crow was going to be in this set. If you know the song, don’t listen to it just yet. First imagine in your head the drum part. Got it? Good, now listen. Maybe you noticed, there is no drum part. But the drive of Joni Mitchell’s rhythm guitar part certainly makes it feel like there is. In arranging this, I’m sure Mitchell knew that a drum part would anchor the song and hold it in place. But Mitchell’s narrator sees a black crow in flight, and notices that it is far from it’s nest, perhaps even lost. It reminds the narrator of her own feelings of being adrift. So there are no drums, and the bass part catches the air currents, and does not anchor the song either.
Spotlight Song of the Week:
Kara Suzanne: Madeliene
Kara Suzanne sings in an alto voice with a bit of a sob in it. This serves her bluesier material well. The arrangements on Parlor Walls range almost from folk to rock in its various guises. Suzanne can modulate her voice to suit each song, so she is free to write in a variety of styles, with even a hint of country here and there. She shows herself to be a wonderful writer, skilled at capturing character and mood without resorting to cliché. All of this is on display in Madeliene, which also features the most subtle use of horns I have ever heard.