It’s a well known fact that country music often leans a little heavily on certain themes, especially those dealing with the singer’s unhappiness. And even though the reasons for the gloomy mood might vary all the way from poverty to prison to past loves, it’s a good bet that loneliness will be near the top of the list.
Hank Williams was the master of loneliness songs, both as a composer and as a singer. It’s been said that it was because of his stressful relationship with his wife, but whatever the cause his output of sad songs was amazing. One of the best – and loneliest – was the appropriately titled “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” When Hank unlimbered his sad, reedy voice on the song, it almost made listeners sob too.
A lot of other singers followed with their take on the tune and one of my favorites was Johnny Cash’s version. The man in black was a master of this type of song, and he used his most mournful singing voice on the recording. It worked. When he sang the opening lines, ‘Hear that lonesome whippoorwill? He sounds too blue to fly,‘ it was impossible not to feel a chill.
For those who have never heard a whippoorwill – or don’t even know what it is – a little education is in order. First of all, don’t confuse it with a whippersnapper, which is a derisive nickname that oldsters sometimes give to younger folks. In fact, the word ‘young’ usually precedes it, as when Steve Allen famously said on his TV show, ‘You young whippersnapper! Coming in here and snapping your whipper!’
Well, it was funny when Steverino said it, but let’s move on. A whippoorwill is a small bird that’s commonly found in most parts of the rural landscape, and is known for its haunting call. It’s been a part of popular culture for many years, showing up in books, movies, and countless songs, and some people even believe an old legend that says the call of the bird signifies a nearby death.
I don’t go along with that, but I will say this. If you ever walk alone along a quiet country road at twilight and hear it – as I have – it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. So when a singer sings about a lonesome Whippoorwill, it doesn’t get much sadder than that.