Morning has broken, like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
A recollection of Judith Durham singing the hymn Morning has broken came to me the moment I turned on the television news on August 5 to hear of her death. By coincidence blackbirds mentioned in the hymn were singing in my garden, sweeping me back to my teenage years in the 1960s when I first took a serious interest in birds, and at the same time discovered the Seekers and the remarkable voice of their singer.
Birds are often used as a metaphor for life’s lighter and darker moments but, feeling an immense sadness at the songster’s passing, it was not only an old birder like myself making this emotional connection. The Australian in a full-page article on the life of the acclaimed singer made the connection four days later.
In this case it was words from an Elton John song recorded by the ex-Seeker, Pigeon Highway, providing the metaphor for the life and times of the beloved Australian songster. The song is about a caged pigeon being let loose and record producer Alan Howe wrote that the life of Judith Durham had a parallel with the “tormented bird in that song”..
In both ancient and modern cultures, birds have been seen to mirror human life, sharing our daily highs and lows. The fact that birds are always around us, either in sight or sound, is one of the reasons they feature so prominently in human culture. They are not only beautiful to watch, but their easy movement across our skies represents freedom, the lack of ties and the restrictions which bind humans to the ground. We do not write music and poetry about, say, possums and hedgehogs.
There is another vital component to avian life that strikes perhaps the loudest chord. Like the notion of freedom, birdsong also links us both. Birdsong and the music human’s make have remarkable similarities. And humans and birds use music for the same reasons. Songs broadcast a presence and identity, and are used for communication. Like humans, birds also use music to educate their offspring; parent birds have their own “nursery rhymes” akin to those in the human world, to prepare their young for life outside the nest.
Speaking of her music, Judith Durham used the metaphor of a caged bird herself to describe the break-up of the Seekers.
“I found my world with the Seekers superficial and single-track. I enjoyed singing, but I felt like a bird in a cage,” she told a British newspaper in the 1970s.
She left the band in 1968 to focus on her own music, releasing solo albums and embarking on a spiritual journey that led her to meditate two hours a day, serenaded not by blackbirds but magpies in the garden of her Melbourne home.