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Come Into the Nightingale’s Thicket and You’ll Find a Musician Singing with Them


Chief among the spring songbirds in the hearts of poets from Nottingham to Nangarhār, the nightingale appears as prima donna in the music of the English folk singer Sam Lee. Growing up with a deep love of nature, it was clear even over the phone that Lee possessed that special awareness of the natural world around him that now only reaches certain people.

His duets with nightingales can be heard through his YouTube channel. The Nest collective, when in the English spring of April-May, he is planted in a forest and with his elder baritone from the village, he coaxes the birds into answering the song.

Over the years he has invited a number of collaborators to visit the Mockingbird Bush to further raise awareness of the ‘musical genius’ of an endangered bird in the UK.

Last year’s performances took place under the stars on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and included jazz trumpeter Byron Wallen, guitarist Justin Adams, folk singer Lisa Knapp and even a brilliant musician performing Harmonic singing in the Mongolian style.

Lee also has a new book called The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, in which he details the history of the nightingale in music, poetry and folklore. It’s full of haunted anecdotes like those of Afghan rubab players trying to lure a nightingale to their pegs with music.

Sam lee

I had the opportunity to talk to Lee about his new book, his annual forest concerts, the singing of birds in the history of music, and how this most musical bird is at risk of disappearing from the English woods where they found people like Coleridge and Keats. your song so lovely.

Not a melancholic bird

Carlos Delgado, CC license / Sam Lee

“I had been listening to them for years,” Lee tells me. “I was in love with her song, but always as a listener.”

“A lot of contemporary music has birdsong in a very wallpaper-like way, never where have birds been so integrated,” he says. watching your Spotify playlist music featuring birdsong in a lead role, featuring modern folk music but also very old traditional recordings.

In 2014 he had the opportunity to work on a documentary for the 90th anniversary of the iconic cellist Beatrice Harrison. recording for him BBC of her playing alongside a singing nightingale, and this was the first time she had the experience of hearing a nightingale sing to her.

“It was like a great revelation,” says Lee. Afterward, he would go to the English woods at night, pitch a tent, and sing with the birds until 2 a.m., when both the bird and the bard went to sleep.

“It’s a two-way thing really,” he told me, trying to describe what it’s like to duet with another species. “I am listening to the bird, the bird is listening to me, I am trying as hard as possible to be in relationship with the bird and sometimes I play something and the bird moves key and begins to adapt to me. It goes both ways. “

In an interview with The Guardian, A reviewer of Lee’s book notes that the Nightingale has a repertoire of 1,500 songs, calls and hums, and is in the name or title of probably more than 600 pieces of music and literature.

Not only does the nightingale migrate to sub-Saharan Africa every year, but fewer and fewer are returning to the UK forests, so every performance Lee gets to perform with them is a true privilege. With the COVID closures essentially canceling most of last year’s gatherings, he sought to “drink on these nights with the nightingale in the wild as much and as hard as possible.”

“I’m out until two, three, four in the morning sometimes and then I get up in the dawn chorus a couple of hours later,” he says, detailing what happens about six weeks out of each year.

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“And it feels like that time of year where it’s just an incredible blast of green when everything is emerging and life is like, forcing yourself out, and you really feel like everything is vibrating very strongly, and you don’t want to miss a drop.” .

Field notes on a songbird

The Campfire Singing with Nightingales, Andrew Hanson

Each nightingale is different, making each performance different, as well as giving Lee and the bird’s relationship a certain doomed romance, as after the bird stops singing in May and migrates thereafter, Lee you can never be sure if the bird you connected with. with such force that it will always return to him.

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I compared it to the relationship between the whaler and his wife, when the morning comes when he has to go for weeks or months at sea, perhaps never to return from dangerous work.

“There was a nightingale about six years ago, and the annoying thing was that it sang right next to a water treatment plant, so it was a bit noisy; He didn’t care, ”Lee says, recalling one of those brief romances.

“They [nightingales] They heard this hum, but they never had it as magnificent as he was, and it was a kind of whimpering that he did. I would hold it longer than any other bird, to the point where your heart just crumpled listening to this moment. “

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“And actually, strangely, it was the same year that there was a blackbird where I was camping and every morning I woke up to this blackbird and had the most incredible phrase, and it would be my passion to wake up at five in the afternoon. the morning and hearing this blackbird do this riff, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, if I was a guitarist, I’d steal that riff and make a million dollars,’ ”he says. “But every time he went to record it, it would stop.”

“And then … He disappeared and never came back, and I’ve always been like, ‘Where’s that blackbird?’ I can remember it in my kind of half-dream when I am really relaxed; I remember that blackbird, ”he says.

“I think that helps me appreciate what we have even more, because I think … It’s like the whaler’s wife who knows she’s going away, so they’re going to spend as much time together as absolutely possible.”

In his book, Lee tries to tell different stories about the various relationships we have with both music and nature, and how they are so often related to each other.

“It is as much about saving a relationship with music as it is about saving a relationship with nature,” he sums up, “and that in this age of ecological extinction, we have to look even more at what we have to lose, these species that have inspired people for thousands of years are disappearing under our control. “

Lee explained that overgrazing and pesticides are affecting British insect populations, creating a lack of food for nightingales, while habitat loss in the UK and along their migration route further contributes to the decline. of the birds.

READ: Bird protectors built a giant sand castle to ensure these martins will have a nesting home for years to come.

But where most endangered species have to do their best with just a handful of conservation dollars and an unrecognized study in a scientific journal, the nightingale has an extraordinary spokesperson, whose passion for his song and whose passion By sharing it, he presents a different proposition for the British people and government: that to lose the bird is to lose Coleridge’s muse, Keats and so many other artists, both alive and yet unborn.

“It is the merry nightingale that crowds, and hurries, and precipitates with a rapid and thick warble its delicious notes, for it feared that one April night would be too short to utter its love song and disintegrate all its soul from all its music “ – Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

(LOOK the highlights of a recent Singing with nightingales concert below.)

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