Friday, September 19, 2014

Starling songs and the Hesitation Blues

Basically, I live in the suburbs. A few businesses operate nearby, but we're on a mostly residential grid, complete with sidewalks and a smattering of trees lining the streets. In the bird department, we get Western bluebirds and goldfinch, hummingbirds and house finches, brown towhees, crows and scrub jays. A predictable bunch of birds for Northern California,  whose songs I readily recognize. So I rushed to the window along with the cat when I suddenly heard a  racket one morning, both of us straining our necks to get a better look. Ah-ha, I saw, deflating slightly, a hundred or so starlings had alighted on the telephone wire in a sudden burst, singing and trilling and chattering away as only they know how. And do starlings know how to make a sound. While I was a little disappointed at finding these prolific and invasive birds in the spot containing my potential wonder of the day, I was nonetheless respectful of their ability to learn and recite the songs of other birds. Starlings are like the ultimate cover band, err,  flock. The European variety evidently haas 15-20 songs ( a whole set!) of other birds' songs that they've learned to imitate and are  ready to sing at any time. The even have local dialects of those songs.
I don't want to identify too closely with a starling, but thinking of starlings reminded me of a song that has become a stalwart in my long sets, 'Hesitation Blues.' (I may have mentioned the song here before ). A traditional song that's been adopted by popular writers (including WC Handy) in the early part of the 20th Century, versions of the tune have been covered by a whole bunch of folks since,  including Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin, varying its feel (blues, Western swing) and lyrics accordingly. I 'found' the song listening to the radio when the DJ played an hour's worth of Hesitation Blues versions. While I sometimes improv my own lyrics based on where I'm singing* (local dialect!)  I typically do a version using the lyrics Willie Nelson plays:

*KALX plays a very Berkeley-centric version I recorded of the song 'KALX Hesitation Blues' after playing a late-edition of KALX-Live in 2013.

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