FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Michael Gray, Independent Scholar

I’m starting this on May 14, 2021 — fifty-five years to the day since I first attended a Bob Dylan concert. It was at the Odeon Cinema, London Road, Liverpool, England, May 14, 1966, 7pm. I was 19. And, lawdy, now I’m heading for 75 and I find Bob Dylan still alive, productive and 80 years old.

If you’ll pardon the avian pun, I’m ducking out of overviews and grand comparisons to focus on one small but typically interesting aspect of his enormous body of work: the invoking of birds — birds in general and birds of particular species — and to consider how he deploys them.

I’m prompted by the happy way the white dove with which he flew into so many people’s consciousness back near the starting-point — Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand? — returns on his most recent album, again invoked as a symbol of peace: If I had the wings of a snow-white dove / I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love.

Having had that prompt, I suppose I assumed there’d be the handful of bird allusions recurrently in my head and perhaps as many again. How wrong I was: there are dozens!

In performance he has sung traditional and other people’s bird-centered songs: “The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird” very early on, Stanley Carter’s “White Dove” in 1997-2000 and “Humming Bird” in 2001-2. Polly Vaughan is shot when mistaken for a swan in the traditional song so exquisitely sung by Dylan at the 1992 Dave Bromberg Chicago sessions and perversely kept unreleased. At the Supper Club, NYC, a year later, one performance included Blind Boy Fuller’s “Weeping Willow,” in which Dylan brilliantly conflates Fuller’s line, That weeping willow and that mourning dove, to sing the Baudelairean, The weeping willow mourning like a dove. There’s another dove simile in the often revisited traditional “Pretty Peggy-O,” first sung live by Dylan in 1961 and studio-recorded on his debut album. On World Gone Wrong a wily parrot is center stage in Dylan’s superb re-creation of the traditional “Love Henry.” In “Pretty Saro” (on Another Self Portrait) Dylan sings of wild birds in a lonesome place. In 2016 at Berkeley he sang the Lynyrd Skynyrd anthem “Free Bird.” In “Corrina, Corrina,” sung live in 1962 and included on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a captive bird whistles and sings, but its company is, like all else, meaningless in Corrina’s absence.

Those last three were unspecified sorts of bird. Such undelineated feathered friends make their presence felt in a number of Dylan’s own officially released songs across the decades. Sometimes they’re mere similes — Girls like birds fly away — on “’Til I Fell In Love With You” (from Time Out Of Mind); Fly away little bird, fly away, flap your wings / Fly by night like the Early Roman Kings (from Tempest); and implicit in “Watching The River Flow,” in which he sings If I had wings and I could fly. . . At other times these birds are offered as both real and to be identified with — singer as simile for bird — as on “You’re A Big Girl Now”: 

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence

He’s singin’ his song for me, at his own expense

And I’m just like that bird

Singin’ just for you.

On “Sign On The Cross,” the song’s fleeting mystery includes The bird is here.

On more than one other Blood On The Tracks song, too, he sees his troubled plight in similar terms. On “Meet Me in the Morning” (as on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) there’s a rooster (poultry made poetry) and the singer feels just like that rooster; meanwhile other, unspecified birds are flyin’ low and he feels so exposed. On a more important track, he is like a bird that flew / Tangled up in blue.

That wasn’t the first song in which the bird symbolizes the human creature, ostensibly yet not truly free, like Freewheelin’ Bob: he was comparably trapped in “Ballad In Plain D,” posing that song’s great final question: Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

At times Dylan’s birds are nicely present, out there in the dark, part of a song’s atmosphere, heard but not seen. There’s no specific bird more beautifully depicted than this, from “Blind Willie McTell”: 

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents

The stars above the barren trees

Was his only audience.

In “Workingman’s Blues #2,” on Modern Times, we’re told that, In the dark I hear the night birds call, and on “Under Your Spell,” on Knocked Out Loaded, Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds. It’s a sound he misses in the dark part of the year in “Moonlight” on Love and Theft: The seasons they are turnin’ / And my sad heart is yearnin’ / To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone.

It’s a sound he envisages being unable to hear at all without his lover’s presence in “If Not For You” on New Morning: Winter would have no spring / Couldn’t hear the robin sing / I just wouldn’t have a clue. But as with the hoot owl, doves, cuckoos and roosters, that’s a specific bird, the American robin (its eggs Bob Dylan blue).

It’s striking how many other species are netted in the songs — literally netted, in the case of every sparrow falling in “Every Grain Of Sand.”[1] In “The Gates Of Eden,” while “wicked birds of prey” pick up on “breadcrumb sins,” the singer tries to harmonize with words / The lonesome sparrow sings. In “Moonlight,” there’s not only those songbirds but also the specific the geese into the countryside have flown, and here Dylan is echoing that lovely line from “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese (in turn an echo of the pre-war blues songs in which wild geese fly west). Dylan’s “Country Pie” cites a singular goose.

There are other species galore, real and symbolic: quail in “Catfish,” an eagle in “You Changed My Life”; a mockingbird in “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”; a bluebird in “Up To Me”; more swans — “Ballad Of The Gliding Swan” and a black swan in “Highlands,” another rooster in “New Morning,” the cuckoo’s return in “High Water,” and further parrots in “Farewell Angelina” and “Simple Twist Of Fate.” Bob as Alias gives us “Turkey Chase.”

There are more stalwart doves in “Dink’s Song” and “Shelter From The Storm”; seagulls in “When The Ship Comes In”; a duck and a ducktrapper in “I Shall Be Free” and “Floater (Too Much To Ask)”; crows in “Black Crow Blues” and “Tiny Montgomery”; the raven in “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”; a peacock in “Caribbean Wind”; and pigeons in “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Three Angels.” In an early “Visions of Johanna” there is Keats’s nightingale code, which flies back to us in “Jokerman.” Between those two magnificent songs comes “Changing Of The Guard,” in which A messenger arrive[s] with a black nightingale.

Finally, while I may have forgotten still further examples[2], I haven’t forgotten the birds in the title track of Under the Red Sky. Perhaps, though Dylan doesn’t say so, they’re blackbirds: that’s implied, given that nursery-rhyme tradition has it that they are the birds, four and twenty of them, baked in a pie. Here, though, it is the unfortunate girl and boy who get baked in the pie, while the birds escape. You can hear that as Dylan’s own story. So many of those who taste even a modicum of his level of fame, or even brush against his, fall victim to catastrophe and early death. A lot of people gone, a lot of people I knew. He has escaped death so many times, surviving to become a still-active octogenarian. He has indeed obeyed his own injunction: let the bird sing, let the bird fly.


[1] In Song & Dance Man III: The Art Of Bob Dylan, 1999, I note the context of Christ’s words in Matthew to which Dylan alludes: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” The reference is to sparrows being sold. Birds were caught in snares like fishes in nets. The phrase “on the ground” here may be a mistranslation from the Ancient Greek, in which “to the earth” is almost identical to “into a snare,” which may have been intended. And Christ seems to have borrowed his “one of them shall not fall . . . without your Father” from the ancient Hebrew manuscript “Bereshith Rabba” (Section 79, Folio 77): “sitting at the mouth of the cave, they observed a fowler stretching his nets to catch birds . . . Then the Rabbi said, ‘Even a bird is not taken without Heaven. How much less the life of a man!’”

In ‘Father Of Night’ on New Morning, that same God is the Father, who teacheth the bird to fly.

[2] I’m grateful to my wife, the foodwriter Sarah Beattie, for finding a number of my examples.