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Which Came First: The Mockingbird Or The Musician?

Library of Congress

In certain worlds of New Orleans music, there is a special sound — a signal — which lets players know it's time to pick up their instruments and strike up the band. But where did this signal come from? We listened to chirps, whistles and musicians, hunting for this signal's origins and to learn: what is the chicken, and what is the egg?

When New Orleans musicians want to say a certain thing, instead of words, they use a four note phrase.  

“It’s a bugle call or a band call to assemble,” explains Leroy Jones.

“It’s a pretty simple thing,” adds Joe Braun. “Strike up the band.” 

“It’s like: 'C’mon, rally, come to the bandstand and be ready to do it; let’s go,'” says Matt Bell.

“It’s a secret musician’s call,” warns Craig Klein. “Don’t tell anybody I told you that.”

“We either whistle, or we play that on our horn,” adds Wendell Bruniuos.

“Yeah,” agrees James Singleton. “The call, the call to play.”

But this call does not belong to musicians alone. It’s also sung by one of the city’s most common species: the Northern Mockingbird.

“When I hear that four note whistle it sounds like a mockingbird to me,” says Peter Yaukey, a professor at the University of New Orleans in the Geography Department and the campus ornithologist.  

Credit Thomas Finnie
A Louisiana Mockingbird

Yaukey says when musicians use this phrase they’re likely borrowing from the mockingbird’s repertoire.

“That particular whistle sounds very much like the phrases a mockingbird would use," Yaukey says. "It’s repetitive, it’s got the right pitch, it’s got the right amount of substance to the notes — bird notes can be either thinner or heavier, thicker as it were. There are all sorts of subtleties to the way they sound. And they acquire more and more phrases over their lifetime by imitating things.”

But who is imitating whom? Musicians and mockingbirds keep the same hours, and it’s easy to imagine a late night jam session between them. So is this call the original song of the mockingbird, or did the mockingbird, a famous mimic, cop the phrase from New Orleans jazz musicians? Who’s the real songwriter? We asked trumpeter Leroy Jones.

“They pick up everything — they mock everything they hear,” says Jones. “We had one that came; I had to put the window down. At six I don’t want to hear you singing. And all of a sudden he’s —" Jones whistles the phrase. "Because he’s probably heard that being in the neighborhood. He’s emulating what he’s heard. And he’s doing the whistle. So he knows it too.”

Credit Katya Toivola
Leroy Jones has a mockingbird who sings outside his window.

“I would certainly think it would be more likely that the musician learned it from the bird,” reasons Peter Yaukey. “Because the fact that the notes sounded so mockingbird like to me means that either they learned it from a musician and it spread throughout the species — which seems pretty unlikely, right? Or it’s more likely that the musician heard it from the bird."

“The whole thing is first comes the hearing, then comes the speaking,” counters Jones. “Or first comes the hearing then comes the whistling.”

“It pierces through, pierces through no matter what, if there’s a big ruckus going on. You’ve probably noticed that too. You’ve got hundreds, multitudes out at the second line, and you hear (a whistle and) you can hear it above that.”

“You can always tell someone who lives here or has lived here, or is from here because when they hear that signal, they look. Because they know it’s either a musician or someone from New Orleans. People from anywhere else in the world, anywhere else in this country do not understand that. This is something very unique to New Orleans.”

“The first time I heard it was from Albert Walters,” recalls Wendell Brunious. “They called him Albert Fernandez. Because of that, we used to call him “Ba-da.”

“It probably started amongst the older musicians when brass band music was in its beginnings in the late 1800’s,” muses Jones. “It’s something that’s been passed down for generations among the brass bands.”

“That’s old school New Orleans brass band,” agrees Klein. “Take it to the street, sorta how you call the guys.”

“Whatever pitch you start at, the root note and then the fourth away is the top note,” explains Jones. “In musical terms it’s a perfect fourth. It’s just a portion of a scale.”

So, we may never know who started the musical conversation: the mockingbird or the musician.

In addition to ornithologist Peter Yaukey and trumpeter Leroy Jones, you also heard musicians Joe Braun, Matt Bell, Craig Klein, James Singleton and Wendell Brunious.

This story would not have been possible without Katy Reckdahl, who first started investigating the mockingbird/musician connection when she moved from Tremé to Bywater. Over and over, Katy heard the call coming from her backyard, and wondered: who is back there, playing? Finally she realized the instrument wasn’t a horn, but rather, a bird.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.