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Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds

It is certainly true that as one gets older, one tends to notice things like birds more; however, I’m still unable to identify more than a couple or three by sight or sound. I do plan to work on that. I’m much better at identifying the sounds of the many groups of the fifties that were named after birds: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Crows.

But this post is not about bird groups. It’s about songs of birds—birds of different colors.

“Bye-Bye, Blackbird” Dorothy Field and Jimmy McHugh wrote “Bye-Bye, Blackbird” in 1928, for Earl Carroll’s Vanities. It’s been recorded many times over the years, but the Mills Brothers’ version flies the highest.

The song’s a staple of my senior-center gigs. There’s a line those of us who perform at senior centers say about playing the Alzheimer’s facilities: “You only really have to know one song.” The Alzheimer’s residents often can’t remember what they’d done for a living day after day for years. But a few always know all of the song lyrics, and sing along, word for word. I’ve even had lyrics corrected by them a few times: “It’s ‘quiet place’ before ‘fireplace,’ not ‘fireplace’ then ‘quiet place.’” I had wondered whether one of them even belonged in the place, until I saw her with her son and his wife. She nodded and smiled as they introduced themselves.

The residents always like to hear “Bye-Bye, Blackbird,” and are lively, relatively speaking, when I play it. Once, I did it as my big finish: “Blackbird, blackbird, blackbird, bye-bye!” I hit a final chord, and was about to say bye-bye when a resident leaned back in his chair as I passed and asked, “Say, fella, do you know “Bye-Bye, Blackbird”?

mills bros

The Brothers Mills

“Yellow Bird” The Mills Brothers recorded another classic colorful-bird song, “Yellow Bird.” It is smooth and soothing–and sometimes smooth and soothing is just what one needs.

“Blackbird” Paul McCartney’s song is one of his greatest: a lyric dedicated to the Civil Rights movement accompanied by beautiful picked-guitar lines that young, budding guitarists like me all learned to play back in the day. (And, according to my guitar-teacher son-in-law, it’s still on his young students’ radar.)

Paul (and wife Linda) also had a pretty “Bluebird,” which ended up on Wings’ Band on the Run album.

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

“Bluebird” Buffalo Springfield packed a lot of fine work into their three albums. There was just too much creativity under one roof to keep it together. It’s hard to pick favorites, but two top candidates could both fall into the bird song category.

Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird” is, I think, his best contribution to Buffalo Springfield. It’s bright and accessible. There are several verses in a rock beat, peppered with Stills’ lead guitar, and then a super-compressed major seventh chord that rings. Then there’s a pause, after which a banjo enters, and the song is recommenced in a gentler, more rural setting. At the other end of the Springfield’s range was Neil Young’s gorgeous duet with strings, “Expecting to Fly.”

Also, on After the Goldrush, his third solo album, another lovely song, “Birds,” talks of flight and feathers. “Danger Bird,” from Neil’s Zuma, is more ominous, a Crazy Horse electrified ballad.

The Wolf in the henhouse

“The Red Rooster” The great Howlin’ Wolf bellowed this blues number in 1961. Wolf never had any trouble with authenticity—he was the rill thang, y’all. But I think he throws himself into this song because he’s not just singing about the red rooster—he is the red rooster, baby. One of many Howlin’ Wolf delights I have to hear every so often.

The Brothers Louvin

The Brothers Louvin

“Red Hen Hop” Charlie and Ira Louvin’s stock-in-trade were sweet ‘n’ sentimental waltzes, melodramatic (but still sweet) gospel songs, and “tragic songs of life” (those were sweet, too), which was the title of one of their albums. So how did this boogie-woogiein’ number make it onto a Louvin Brothers album? No telling, but it’s quite enjoyable to hear the Brothers rock out a little bit about the red hen that Wolf’s red rooster’s makin’ hop.

“When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” Louis Armstrong did the definitive version of this cheerful song. When I was playing at a hospital, an aide asked if I’d sing a happy song for a cancer patient, a grizzled Vietnam vet. I chose this one, and we both ended up teary-eyed by the end of it. I hope he made it through.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Honorable Mentions: There are some great songs of birds, like “Expecting to Fly,” that do not mention the color of the bird. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is one. Often, when record nerds are playing “favorite albums of all time,” they forbid greatest hits anthologies. I can understand that—it’s a different type of album, since the artist didn’t conceive of its songs as part of a single work. But some collections, like the Legends anthology of Bob Marley masterpieces, are just too good to omit. One could say that a Bob Marley best-of isn’t necessary, because so many of his albums are listenable from beginning to end. That’s true of the great Exodus album, fully half of which, including “Three Little Birds,” is duplicated on Legends. Exodus was, in fact, named by Time magazine Best Album of the 20th Century. So, for the record nerds who make greatest hits albums ineligible for top-album lists, I’ll readily substitute Exodus for Legends.

Dennis Wilson’s song “Little Bird,” from the Beach Boys album Friends, doesn’t sound like a Dennis song—it sounds like a Brian song. I figure big bro Bri had a big hand in it, at least in the vocal harmony arrangement and key modulations. It’s short and sweet and remains a favorite from this favorite album.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: We have mentioned nice songs of black, blue, red, and yellow birds. But It’s a Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” seemed stuffy and drippy to me even back when I was a young and impressionable hippie wannabe. I can’t imagine I’d like it any better now that I’m an old and impressionable hippie wannabe. And that name is a precursor to later bad band names that are statements: Gene Loves Jezebel, Jimmy Hates Jazz, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah…

I Put a Spell on You

I Put a Spell on You

I’m not overly superstitious, and I don’t pay much attention to signs, good or bad. But I admit to occasionally choosing for a performance the same shirt I wore for a previous successful show. I daresay that more than a few physicists and accountants have little rituals they observe and could relate a tale or two of some mojo working on their libidos.

Mojo Man Muddy

Mojo Man Muddy

“I’ve Got My Mojo Working” Muddy Waters was such a strong presence in the studio that the landmark recordings he made at Chess bring you right into the room; you’re sitting there in awe among Muddy and his band. An album that actually was recorded live, Muddy Waters at Newport, is so in-your-face it nearly knocks you down. Muddy was the last act at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, the remainder having been canceled on account of some youthful scofflaws’ disruptions. With his set, Mr. Waters brought blues right into the folk scene, the folkie fans bowled over by his dynamic music.

The last “official” song (pianist Otis Spann sang a near-impromptu “Goodbye, Newport,” written by poet Langston Hughes, as an encore) Muddy and band performed was “I’ve Got My Mojo Working.” Muddy’s gotten himself a mojo hand, but it seems to be doing its stuff on everyone except the object of his affection. “Got my mojo workin’, but it just don’t work on you.”

You can hear Muddy’s mojo in his voice, in James Cotton’s brilliant harmonica playing, and in the band’s lively accompaniment. You can also hear Waters’ representation of it when, twice, he substitutes a motorboat sound for the word “mojo.” You and I can use the motorboat sound on a two-year-old’s belly to elicit giggles, but only Muddy can use it to portray his sexual bravado.

Muddy Waters notes that he got wise somewhere along the way and stopped believing in the power of spellcasting. “There is no way I can shake my finger at you and make you bark like a dog,” he’s quoted as saying in Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues. But he had several popular hits about the spells of the mojo that people always wanted to hear, and he always played them. In addition to “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” there were his first big hit “Louisiana Blues” (“I’m goin’ down to New Orleans, get me a mojo hand”), “I’m Your Hootchie Cootchie Man” (“I got a black cat bone / I got a mojo, too / I got the John the Conqueroo / I’m gonna mess with you”), and others.


“I Ain’t Superstitious” Chester Arthur Burnett—the great Howlin’ Wolf–was named after one of our least notable Presidents, Chester Alan Arthur. (Interestingly, Duke Ellington’s first and middle names, Edward Kennedy, happened to be the name of a future politician. But I digress.)

Wolf, Muddy’s Chicago peer and rival, recorded this rockin’ blues number in 1961. It was written by Willie Dixon, but is credited to Wolf on His Greatest Sides, the recording I own. Its eerie power is conveyed by Wolf’s penetrating vocal and the band’s stop-time answering parts. Both of these elements were nicely carried over in 1968 by the Jeff Beck Group on their debut album Truth. This early performance by singer Rod Stewart is one of his best, and Beck never topped his wah-wah guitar shenanigans during the remake’s breaks. It’s a cover that is almost as good as the original.

Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck

“Superstition” Jeff Beck hit the subject again in ’73 with his instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder’s #1 hit “Superstition,” after helping Wonder on the Talking Book album that featured the song. “When you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer / Superstition ain’t the way.”

tea room

“In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” Val Rosing was a British warbler in the ‘20s and ‘30s. You can hear his influence on Tiny Tim as he croons about the gypsy who foretold his love for the gal of his dreams, “when she said that someone in the tea room would steal my heart away.” It’s an impossibly sweet little number, with a zither swooping over accordions and ukuleles—it makes one want to drop in on a gypsy tea room and just see if magic happens.

Rosing was the first singer to record two songs that were much covered into the ‘70s, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (Jerry Garcia, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and “Try a Little Tenderness” (Otis Redding, Three Dog Night). In 1938, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer renamed Rosing Gilbert Russell and brought him to America in hopes of making him the English Bing Crosby (Binglish?), but it didn’t work out that way. No one remembers Rosing or Russell.

“In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” was a hit in the U.S. for four different artists, all in 1935, but not poor Val.

nina 2

“I Put a Spell on You” It’s Nina Simone’s version of this Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic, the title song of her best album, that works its mojo on me, but I do get a kick out of Hawkins’ no-holds-barred histrionics on the original.

One of the many charms of the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise is the fascination Eva, a Hungarian visiting the U.S., where her aunt and cousin live, has for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and his hit “I Put a Spell on You.” This babe in America feels a connection and would love to find Screamin’ Jay—an American treasure her American cousin doesn’t value. “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” says Eva, “and he’s a wild man. So bug off.”

Director Jarmusch discovered that the royalties he paid to use the song in his movie all went to the record company, so he tracked Hawkins down in a trailer park, paid him for his song, and the two became pals. Would’ve made Eva happy.

Honorable Mention: Cole Porter’s first big hit musical, Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), featured one of his most enduring songs, “You Do Something to Me.” “Let me live ‘neath your spell / Do do that voodoo that you do so well.”

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