Saturday, September 20, 2008

`The Music in the Night'

Only this week did I notice the absence of the dark-eyed juncos. I’ve come to think of them as the state bird of Washington though the legislature favors the willow goldfinch (also known as the American goldfinch). The juncos were jumping between the shrubs and roof while the moving men unloaded our possessions in May, simultaneously bold and shy. Their minimalist call – tick, tick, tick – reminds me of Count Basie’s sparse piano. In his chapter on September in The Rural Life, what Verlyn Klinkenborg writes of another species applies to our juncos:

“…when it sings, the catbird distills shadows into music, the way the nightingale does in English poetry. There’s a faintly mechanical quality to its song, as though the notes were produced by small bells or the operation of intricate machinery.”

They’re gone though all the books say juncos spend their winters here. The autumnal equinox comes on Monday and perhaps our resident pair has answered some melody unheard by humans.

I was saddened to learn from Terry Teachout of Richard Sudhalter’s death. He was a trumpet player, described by Whitney Balliett as “an elegant, if sometimes brittle, Beiderbecke admirer,” but more of us knew him as one of our finest writers on jazz and American popular music. I recommend Bix: Man and Legend (1975); Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 (1999); and Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael (2002). Lost Chords, in particular, is a masterwork of scholarship and truth-telling.

I don’t own any of Sudhalter’s music but I have a recording of Hoagy Carmichael singing his songs and accompanying himself on piano. Sudhalter, in his biography, calls “Skylark” a “Carmichael masterwork,” with lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer. Read this verse, or sing it, and pause to remember Richard M. Sudhalter, the birds and summer:

“And in your lonely flight
Haven't you heard the music in the night?
Wonderful music,
Faint as a will o' the wisp,
Crazy as a loon,
Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.”

After writing this I had an e-mail from Ron Slate in which he mentioned Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament,” written in memory of his mother. The final verse seems especially appropriate:

“Sometimes a sad moon comes and waters the roof tiles.
But the years are gone. There are no more years.”

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

Here in Chicago, the juncos pass through twice a year, staying for a couple of weeks in the early spring and again for a couple of weeks in the late autumn. It's always such a thrill to spot the first one of the season, and to imagine that they remember that our feeder is there, making this a good spot in which to rest up before the conclusion of their journey.