Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Music for New Year's Eve: Listen to the Mockingbird

I'm posting two different versions of "Listen to the Mockingbird."  The first is a wonderful instrumental recording by Brother Bones and His Shadows.

Brother Bones was a guy named Freeman Davis who whistled and played the bones.  He made about a dozen records, most or all of them during the late 1940s.  Alas, the market for records by guys who whistle and play the bones has never been what you and I might hope it would be, and so Brother Bones never really had any hits.  One recording of his is universally recognized, however, though his name is seldom if ever mentioned in conjunction with it:  a few years after he recorded "Sweet Georgia Brown," the Harlem Globetrotters adopted his version of it as their theme and have played it at every appearance in the 60+ years since.

More recordings by Brother Bones and His Shadows can be streamed or downloaded at The Online Guide to Whistling Records.  (Of course there is such a thing.  Why are you even surprised?)

But the lyrics to "Listen to the Mockingbird" are too good to omit, so here's Burl Ives's version.

1855.  "Alice Hawthorne" was a Winner pen name.

The irrepressibly sprightly tune was written by Richard Milburn, an African American Philadelphia barber who played guitar, sang, and whistled well enough he was known as "Whistling Dick."  The mournful lyrics (the singer is listening to the mockingbird sing on his dead love's grave) were written by Septimus Winner, a white Philadelphia professional songwriter with over 200 published songs, including "Oh Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?" and "Ten Little Indians."
A year later, no sign of Milburn's credit.
The song was one of the biggest hits of the Civil War era.  Winner credited Milburn as composer on the original 1855 publication, but a year later the sheet music had an 1856 registration date and no sign of Milburn's name.  ("Alice Hawthorne" was a pseudonym Winner used for himself.)

Ted Widmer wrote a nice appreciation of "Listen to the Mockingbird" for the New York Times's "Disunion" Civil War blog a couple months ago.  I am happy to borrow from it Lincoln's opinion of the song:  "as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play."

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