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Know the West

The obscure music where wild animals sing from the heart


In a small corner of popular music, there are songs that have been written and sung in the haunting voices of animals, and the Canadian singer-songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson have written what I think are the best of them. In Lightfoot's "Whispers of the North," a loon speaks:

whispers of the north
soon I will go forth
to that wild and barren land
where nature takes its course

The song starts with a loon's recorded call. Guitars enter on its fading pulse, and then the words, almost spoken, in short phrases that resemble wingbeats. Somehow he and his band evoke high flight, its detachment and its exultation.

A common loon.

Ian Tyson, though 82 and much bent – and now recovering from heart surgery a month ago – keeps on writing, singing and playing out of Longview, Alberta. His recordings are wonderful, but even as his voice and finger powers ebb, his peak comes in performance. His shows with band mates Gordon Maxwell and Lee Worden weave history, ballad, lament, hymn, rap, dance and tale, in rhythm and rhyme at a crossroads where 250 years of North American West meet the moment of music by an old man deep-rooted in both.

In Tyson's songs, all manner of animals swoop, scavenge, swim, scream, hunt, howl, die, mate and migrate. He loves the wayward – young hawks, magpies, crows, coyotes – and the wanderers – horses, wolves, salmon, geese. You know how a song first heard when young can echo down your life? One for me, from his fifth record, made with his then-wife Sylvia, is called "Wild Geese":

down by the stream
fresh otter tracks in the snow
now that the wind
says you ain't
coming back

When I hear it – guitars and autoharp in measured pace with the singers' heart-catching voices – I am back in New York City where I heard it the very first time, or later by a Yellowstone stream, where watching two otters brought it back to me. And I feel a compass needle quivering and then settling straight to what I am and what has come to matter.

Tyson has recorded three songs in animal voice. In "This is My Sky," as an old man walks from his house to his work cabin, young hawks scream down at the intruder, leaving no doubt about whose territory it is:

this is my sky
this is my sky
this is my sky---yi

"La Primera" is a six-minute tale told by Spanish mustangs of their centuries in the American West: Cortez, who brought them to the continent; the Comanches, who made the animals their own; the cowboys, trailing cattle from Texas to Saskatchewan; and finally, the bands of horses growing up wild again in Montana's Pryor Mountains, running free into the new millennium. The horse sings:

I am a drinker of the wind
I am the one who never tires
I love my freedom more than all these things -
The conquistador, Comanche and the cowboy
I carried them to glory
La Primera
Spanish mustang
hear my story

"Yellowhead to Yellowstone," written with Stewart McDougall, is in the voice of a wolf brought while a pup from Canada to Yellowstone in 1995, as part of wolf reintroduction in the West led by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt:

from the Yellowhead to Yellowstone they brought us
then let us go
we fled the only cage we'd ever know

Two early lines are the wolf's credo, and the song's:

then we'd be free
as wild as we were ever meant to be

The words, rhythms, and Tyson's old man's growl make me believe in the wolf, and in his mate, since it's also a love song. The anthropomorphizing is overt, as in all these songs. At their best, they are duets. You must believe the animal voice, but the songs create a blended place of animal and human, which you enter. More than the words, the music that I cannot reproduce here holds the conjunction together for its short time. Lightfoot again:

whispers of my heart
in the tracks of animals

It is the loon's heart, and Lightfoot's, and mine.

Pat Ford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is a longtime conservationist and lives in Boise, Idaho.