Hollis Brown's South Dakota
Community Radio

Little Birdie

Bedside Book of Birds

 

If I hadn't noticed it myself, I'm not sure I would have believed it either.

Mike Seeger recorded a common-enough old banjo turne, Little Birdie, for what might be his masterwork, Southern Banjo Sounds. Various other versions of the song exist and mix together in interesting ways, as these old Appalachian songs tend to do.

But Seeger's choice of style and lyrics seems to bring out something profound in the old song. His version comes off as a densely woven little contemplation on how art and death, and art and love, and love and death can all seem to circle around each other, amplifying each other's importance.

I'd heard the song plenty of times before, but this potential had never dawned on me. By comparing this version with an older one, I think I see hints of how he brought out these deep, far-ranging implications in the song, how he got that fledging bird to take flight.

Here's the lyrics as Mike Seeger sings them, I think:

Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing to me your song.
Got a short time to stay here
And a long time to be gone.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
Dissatisfied, dissatisfied
And a-caring never a bit to die.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes your wings so blue?
It's nothing else but grieving,
But grieving over you.

Fly down, fly down, little birdie,
And sing to me your song.
Sing it now, while I'm with you,
Can't hear you when I'm gone.
Like everything else on Southern Banjo Sounds, it's a solo performance, played on an old banjo, in an old style — in this case, an 1860's resonator banjo with a curious hybrid of two-finger picking and clawhammer. The long instrumental passages between verses have the smooth, flowing feel of flying — I guess a little like "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour or John Hartford's song "Steam Powered Aereo Plane."

Thirty-seven years before this recording, when he was only 26 (and maybe less experienced in love, art, and death), he performed the song with the New Lost City Ramblers during a concert in Boston. A recording of it is available on 40 Years of Concert Performances.

To my ears, the earlier version is unusually "folkie" for the Ramblers, with the kind of bright, proud, collegiate sound you find in someone like the Kingston Trio. But being the Ramblers, of course, the musicianship is excellent, with a taste of Mike Seeger's mandolin skills and Tom Paley's firm, syncopated, snappy banjo picking.

The text is a little elusive. Who is the narrator talking to, a bird or a woman? In fact, the identity of the narrator seems to move around from character to character without warning — first a young man speaks (he's either a married woman's lover or a bird watcher), and then at the end, the bird (or the woman) talks back.

Despite the marchy, declarative sound and the shifting viewpoint, the lyrics are touching — a snapshot of youthful need and loss.

(Chorus)
Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing me your song.
Got a short time for to be here
And a long time to be gone.

Married woman, married woman,
Come and see what you done done
You have caused me for you to love you
Now your husband's done come.

(Chorus, then mandolin solo)

I'm a long ways from old Dixie
And my old Kentucky home,
And my father and mother are both dead,
Got no one to call my own.

(Chorus)

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
It's because I have a true little heart
And I do not care to die.
In the later Southern Banjo Sounds recording, Mike has removed the married woman and the husband, the father and mother, and Kentucky — and with them goes any hint of a story line. He leaves us, then, entirely in the realm of abstracted notions, the imagination, and the pure emotional force of the music. The lyrics have been stripped down to nothing but a conversation between singer and bird — between artist (or lover, or mortal) and what matters most to him. What used to be a youthful complaint in the Ramblers version is now an older man's contemplation.

I guess to take away a lesson from all this, you could do worse than the lesson taught in almost every writing workshop (and which, some day, even The Celestial Monochord might learn) — less is more.

 

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