"Scarce Inferior to the Nightingale": Hermit Thrush Song and American Cultural Identity

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“Scarce inferior to the nightingale”: hermit thrush song and American cultural identity

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a small songbird, widespread across North America. Hermit thrush song – heard in the bird’s breeding range, in central and southern Canada and the coastal United States – is widely considered beautiful. Indeed, it has been posited as the “equal, if not [the] superior” of Europe’s “favorite bird, the nightingale of the poet.” Over the past 200 years, English-speaking North American poets, nature writers, storytellers, theologians, performers, composers, musicologists, and scientists have created a rich, multi-disciplinary body of works about hermit thrush song, which draws to varying degrees on objective description, subjective response, and creative re-interpretation of the song. The aims, ways of working, and individuals involved with these diverse fields are distinct, but all are affected (often unconsciously) by prevailing cultural values and conceptions about the human, the animal, the natural, and the beautiful. In turn, understandings gained through each of these methods of inquiry often filter into public consciousness, and from there into seemingly unrelated areas, including the development of North American spiritual and moral ideologies. In this paper I draw on my experience as a composer, (zöo-)musicologist, and interdisciplinary collaborator with biologists to show how these diverse ways of conceptualizing hermit thrush song all fit together as part of a single narrative about how people, coming from a variety of perspectives, have heard, understood, and represented the hermit thrush throughout history, with these changing understandings revealing as much about the developing cultural identity of English-speaking North Americans over the past 200 years as they do about the hermit thrush itself.



Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished or Performed - 8 Apr 2021
EventBritish Forum for Ethnomusicology Annual Conference: Music, Culture and Nature - Bath Spa University/Online, Bath, United Kingdom
Duration: 8 Apr 202111 Apr 2021


ConferenceBritish Forum for Ethnomusicology Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleBFE2021
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address

Author keywords

  • hermit thrush, birdsong, zoomusicology