Sam will be joining us as our special musical guest at our upcoming in person August retreat in Kent, England. You can learn more about the retreat and register here.
Emergence MagazineSam, really lovely to join you today. Thanks so much for being here with us.
Sam LeeThank you, Emmanuel, for having me.
EMSo I spent, you know, the last week or so kind of immersed in your work, reading your new book, The Nightingale, listening to your albums and some of the remarkable recordings you’ve done singing with nightingales. And I was really struck by the relationship and parallels between folk music and birdsong, both in your work but also more broadly in the deep connection to place and landscapes they both embody. And this is something you write about. So I was curious to start our conversation today by asking how you first came to experience this relationship between folk music and birdsong, one that ultimately led you into such a unique relationship with the nightingale.
SLI come from a nature study background, growing up at a wonderful [camp], similar to one of the summer camps that you’d have out in the States, a very alternative, left-wing radical organization called Forest School Camps that enabled a unique way for children, and then me as an adult, as a staff member, to grow up in a playful, a very community-orientated but also ecologically minded relationship with nature; that allowed me to grow a confidence in my being there, but also a confidence in myself. And it went hand in hand with song, because the campfire singing tradition there was prolific like nowhere else I’ve ever come across. Hundreds of songs, many folk songs, many of the American classic folk songs, but a large proportion of traditional repertoire that spoke from that point of view of our elders, our ancestors, in the way that folk songs do so beautifully, which is to speak quite open heartedly about adoration of nature. And that recitation and the repetition of melody over and over again, verse after verse, allowed me as a child and growing up to see the natural world through many eyes and many stories, and story being the most important part of our being in this world and in nature. So it was sort of distilled in me from an early age. And in those songs, birds seem to appear everywhere, almost more prolifically than maybe one would have been aware just listening out to the sound world around. I befriended them, maybe before I’d even heard them. The nightingale I’d heard through folk song long before I got the opportunity to hear one. And, and the same with trees and what those trees and what those birds meant to those characters in those songs and giving a sense of an older wisdom that maybe I had an inclination towards.
EMYou said that, you know, after your first encounter with a nightingale, you were reduced child-like, and I’m quoting you here, “to a state of wonderment, grinning inanely and transported through deep time, deep song, and deep earth.” That sounds like quite a transformative experience. Could you share your first encounter with a nightingale, what that was like for you?
SLThere is a beautiful story around it. I was taken down with friends of mine and a pregnant, full-term mother. We heard the bird sing, and yes, I went through this kind of giddy … like, like my first kiss. <laughs> I think of it like that sense of: Wow, I want this again. And the story of the mother—she went into labor that night and gave birth to her second child, Tristan. And then she and her daughter were both killed in an accident in Kenya, which was their home, although we met in England. They were killed only six months later. And instantly, that moment of exquisiteness of this bird, this new love affair, was coated in a tragic veil. And never again have I heard the nightingale and not thought of Polly and Sita, mother and daughter. But at the same time, what it revealed to me was that, all the while I’ve been singing these folk songs—with a nightingale here and a nightingale there, or a lark here or a turtledove there—what I was doing by hearing that bird—really, in such a ceremonial way that it was a marked journey to go and meet the bird and be in his presence—what I was experiencing was the voice that every one of the folk singers, who for hundreds of years had sung that song and whose shoulders I stand on—I was experiencing that quality of excitement that they had felt when they heard their nightingale sing, you know, three hundred years ago, a thousand years ago—however old these songs are, and some of them go back a very long time. And I was suddenly able to inhabit the place of those ancestral singers in a way that I hadn’t. And I realized that the more I stepped into those stories in nature, the more I understood the songs; and the more I understood the songs, the more I understood what my human relationship with nature was, that they were my vocabulary and they were my entry point into the natural world in a way that made sense to me—as a part of the natural world, but also as a human teller of story and of nature’s song.
EMI mean, hearing you describe that sounds somewhat spiritual in a certain way, I guess. It really captured you on multiple levels. And that’s something I really felt when you were describing some of these experiences in your book. And there’s a wonderful line that’s stayed with me and described the nightingale in this way and its influence on you: “This tiny bird led me across a threshold and introduced me to a way of being in nature that I had never reckoned with. The experience was both a meditation on stillness yet also a provocation to dance with abandon.” That’s very beautiful.
SL<laughs> I think maybe some context is really important here, because the bird doesn’t exist in America. There are birds called nightingales, but it’s very much a European and Eurasian bird. And he sings his courtship song—it’s a night song, you know, as the nachtigallen, “the night wind,” “the night voice.” And he’ll sing in that silence all night from 11 p.m. through till dawn at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, unrelenting. It’s a persistent, extraordinary, improvised, constantly new but constantly taking from his 1500 different sounds and 250 repertoire of phrases, but always cycling a new combination. And within that musicality and ecstaticness and energetic explosions, often in the coldness of the night and in the stillness of the night, I recognized another artist, who dared into this space in a way that the loneliness of an unaccompanied folk singer—or as I was before I did music, as a dancer—I was so energized and, like, I had permission to be an expressive person. Because if a nightingale could do it out of a pure innate call, the call of nature, for that nightingale to sing, it called in me the opportunity to express. <laughter>
EMYour, I guess, project, this ongoing project that you have of singing with nightingales, as far as I understand it, it started by your desire to honor an encounter with a cellist and a nightingale earlier on in the history of recorded music and radio, in 1924, with this very famous British cellist, Beatrice Harrison. I wonder if you could share that story and talk a little bit about Beatrice and what she did.
SLMmm, absolutely. She’s a very incredible woman. I should kind of contextualize that by saying she was around in the 1920s, which is relatively modern in the history of where music and nightingales have existed. There’s a long international legacy of that, but she is our British kind of apocryphal tale of where the nightingale came into popular consciousness. And it happened because as a darling society character, she was the muse of Elgar. She played the premier of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. She was friends with royalty. She was real out there on the scene and a real pioneer of women’s rights as well. And she convinced the BBC much against their judgment to try out some new broadcasting equipment that would allow microphones to be small enough to take outside of the studio. And so on the 19th of May, 1924, the BBC—brand new at that point and internationally broadcasting—broke into one of their concerts and stopped to say, “We have a broadcast from the thicket of her back garden down south of London,” where a mile of cable linking up to the telephone exchange brought the song of the nightingale singing that night with her on her cello improvising and playing some pieces. And it was a viral sensation. You know, it was the ultimate first in that kind of, yeah, media experience that traveled around the world. Millions of people listened to it; fifty thousand people wrote letters in to the BBC to say, “Please, can we have more?” And she became this figure—this lady of the nightingales—and every year she did this broadcast, and she sold millions of records. And she traveled the world and would play the Carnegie Hall several times a year and invite all the Americans to come to her home in Oxted and have tea with her and listen to her nightingale, which they did in the thousands. Literally, you know, tankers of humans came over across the sea to hear her nightingale. She really brought that kind of popular appreciation and did a lot in terms of the preservation of birds and, you know, the popularization of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, our big charity. So she’s a—she’s a formidable figure but what she did was bring art and the nightingale together.
EMAnd is that what inspired you, just kind of the confluence of your love of birds and nature and then hearing somebody who had found a way to be in relationship with them as a musician?
SLI wish it was as obvious as that. No, not at all. I’d been listening to nightingales every year as a kind of pilgrimage to hear them. I got this lucky commission, because the BBC had completely missed their ninetieth anniversary of this seminal event. And I wrote an email to the man at the BBC as you do, going, “Uh … can I uh … can I make a little documentary about this?” And they were like, “Heck, yeah.” I had forty hours’ notice to go and make it. It was the fastest turnaround in BBC history, I think. And I did; I made this little documentary. And it was going out there to sing a song with the birds in homage to her that I discovered that actually the birds sang back. And that was the big threshold for me. Really, the most important one, which was not just the discovery but realizing the birds and me and other musicians could collaborate, that the birds changed their key and their frequencies and their decoration to adapt to your music. And that blew me, because I’d only ever been a silent participant, you know—a listener. Never would I sing with the great master, you know, interrupt. But lo and behold, he invited me in. That led to this kind of, “well, if I can do this on my own, maybe I could get an audience to come and experience this too.” This is nature connection, elixir. I call it the kind of shot up the arm. The adrenaline hit of hearing musicians and birds in collaboration is a sensation like no others, and it’s quite a transformative experience. So I’ve created this sort of concert, but I think of it or as a ceremony for the birds that allows people to have an experience with nature that we in England don’t often have the permission to have because of the country we live in and the laws and the way we are and our relationship to land. It opens up all those boundaries and other people’s thresholds and comfort zones in a very powerful way.
EMWell, let’s take a listen to that recording of you singing with nightingales. This is “The Tan Yard Side.” <plays recording>
I just find that recording very remarkable, Sam. I mean, I’ve listened to it several times now and it—and it really hits me very deeply each time. In fact, I think more so each time. You know, and it just feels very clear that there’s a relationship that you and the other musicians that you’re there with stepped into with the nightingale. And one thing that really struck me that you wrote about in your book was that you feel that nightingales have sung with humans for millennia and that you’re convinced that this ability for musical kinship that was so beautifully just displayed in that recording, you know, evolved side by side—the nightingale and the human—and that there is an epigenetic imprint of their song upon our ancestors that is undeniable.
SLYeah, I appreciate your listening to that recording, which I try not to, particularly now, because we’re recording this in the middle of nightingale season, and there’s this almost like sacredness of not going into that space. But you know, if there was ever a teacher of what trance is, the nightingale is one to reveal that. The footprints I’m walking in, in hearing that bird, strips away that sense of time. That bird is exactly the same as the bird that sang at the time of the Lascaux or Chauvet Caves. In fact, they would have been those nightingales singing outside those caves for the whole of spring and summer. And likewise, that the song that I’m singing—while I love singing the folk songs—is able to bring those ancestors into my circle, into our circle, that I feel I’m part of something very ancient. And there is no question, and there’s nothing reenacting about it or staged, it’s just I’m doing it the way it is. And in my research, I’ve met many different communities, traditional song communities and master musicians who’ve learnt from the nightingales as their teaching has dictated. And in many ways, you know, living in England with a very strange secularity within our folk repertoire has allowed me to explore what a sacred spiritual form of practice might be with these birds and how they might enable a re-enchantment. I feel like nature is my spiritual leader in this respect and the nightingale is my imam at the top of that tower calling the prayer out.
EMYou are not only a folk musician and a communer with nightingales, but you’re a song collector, and you’ve spent many, many years traveling around the UK—England, Scotland, Ireland—spending time and collecting and recording and learning songs from, as far as I understand it, singers who are often the last in their line of stewarding that tradition of oral storytelling, oral communing, oral relationship with the land. And many of those singers are really the last to hold that knowledge.
SLYeah. It feels very connected to your “Language Keepers” project; we have the same situation. Actually, I’m very much into language, not just a song language; but there are many indigenous languages and have been many indigenous languages within Great Britain. And many of the last of the most eroded and vulnerable ones are those of the gypsy traveler community, who are our indigenous people. They are our First Nations, to a certain extent: the Irish Travelers, the Scots Travelers, the English Gypsies—all have their own language. The cant of the Scots Traveler is almost extinct. The Irish Cant and Gammon are also disappearing fast. Romani is holding on strong amongst the communities and is more widely kept. But the elders of those communities, who were much ignored by the folk music world—You know, it took people like Alan Lomax, actually, to come over and pay attention to them; only a few of the British song collectors in the 1950s and ’60s were making the effort to document. And I was quite lucky that Lomax’s British companion, Peter Kennedy—while he was in his eighties and I in my early twenties—became my teacher for a short while and introduced me to that repertoire and revealed to me that there might actually still be elders who sang the songs—by chance, by playing me a recording of a ten-year-old girl singing a folk song, who was a gypsy girl. And I knew that if she was ten years old in 1955, she’d probably still be alive. And so I went out and started searching for elders who had these songs, and none of them had ever been recorded or documented, and none of them knew that other people sang these songs. They just thought they were their family songs. They didn’t realize that these were—as we call it—”the cash in the attic,” you know, the heirlooms that actually have great, vast, cultural value. And I recorded several hundred of them. In fact, one of the ones that I first met, Stanley Robertson, apprenticed me as—He comes from the great Scottish Traveler balladeer tradition, which is a much mightier, purer, and more psychic and spiritual lineage, immensely mysterious and shrouded in all sorts of ways that we could go into in much depth another time. But he was my great teacher and taught me what that spiritual connection to the songs was and took me to the places, the birth places of the songs. And that really kind of drove me to—that I needed to meet these people before they died, before they passed on; before those songs went with them as well. And the songs were critical in that, but actually it was about an exchange of knowledge and of humanity that these people couldn’t go to their grave with these songs without having been told that they were important—And actually for me to give thanks to them for having carried them all this way. And recording them and documenting them and putting the archive up online, the song collectors archive, was a technical form of thanks; but really for me it was the eye-to-eye, ear-to-ear, and heart-to-heart experience of transmission, of that oral transmission, and the ancient way of me receiving those songs—to say, “I will do what I can to look after them, and I will take them into this era in the best way that I know how.” And I’m not always the best, but I’m always trying.
EMIs there a song that you learned from one of these wisdom holders of this oral tradition that you’d like to share with us?
SLOh, there’s hundreds. <laughs> And I’d like to share them all, please. But not maybe all at once on this podcast. Ah. I have to sing one from Stanley Robertson, because he really is the—my teacher and the one I’m most thankful for. And I will sing for you a song that was his lucky song. It’s called “My Aushoon”—which is the Traveler language for “my old shoes”—about a love affair that falls apart. And that person fitted him, our protagonist, like a pair of old shoes that were so comfortable, and she’s gone to the church to get married to another young man. So I’ll do, maybe not the whole thing, because it’s a long song, but I’ll do two or three verses. <sings Scottish Traveler song>
EMReally beautiful. It’s almost like there is, you know, when I asked about this epigenetic imprint that was present within birds and humans—I mean, one thing that always strikes me when I hear folk music that has been passed down directly, or languages that have been passed down directly, that even for the listener who is maybe not directly connected, you feel the presence of the people behind the song going back, and it’s very beautiful.
SLI wanted to respond to that, actually, because there is a word for this that Stanley—Stanley’s family, the Robertson clan—had for that quality of singing, the thing they were all trying to achieve, and he inherited it from his aunt, the legendary Jeannie Robertson. Alan Lomax recorded and released a wonderful album of her songs. And Jeannie and the Robertsons called it the maizie. It’s also the coniach in other traveler tongues, in the Irish, and duende, you know, Lorca’s In Search of Duende. And Stanley would always speak that when you sang you called in the maizie, you called in the maizie. You called—The songs didn’t exist inside you. They were outside you, and you breathe them in. You activated them. And when you had the maizie inside you, the ancestors would appear. And when Stanley sung and his family sung, you knew that the ghosts of his ancestors, they were all there sitting next to him judging him, you know, poking fun, laughing, playfully and seriously and holding him to account of the integrity of that singing. But it’s also that that was their way of infiltrating and bleeding into the listener and casting that spell. <play section of recording>
EMI guess going back to the nightingales, you’ve spoken about their relationship to you personally as kind of a gateway to reconnecting on a much deeper level to the natural world and, specifically, to the healing power of nature. You wrote about this in your book. And I loved, you described the nightingales as the head surgeon in this practice of healing—for you, but I think you’re speaking also more broadly for us collectively.
SLMmm. They have a particular way of opening you up, and you know, there are few creatures that can do that. And they’re not the only one. I found an agency with them that allows me to do that work and to bring that work to others. But healing is different for every person, because we all bring our own sickness, our own pathologies, and our own, yeah, our own problems. And we see that in the legacy of poetry and prose and folk song of how the nightingale has appeared always in this place of wisdom keeper, of unlocker. They unlock you and they rinse through you, because that’s the power. You can hear it a little bit on that recording, but they sing at 90 decibels. They are so loud. It’s like being next to the speaker in the nightclub. You know, your eardrums thrum and throb to their sound, and you feel it inside your heart. It’s a quivering sensation as the frequencies kind of, you know, pass through you. That’s a gift. Sometimes you have to work very hard to have those palpable experiences of cleansing, of communion with nature. And then you bring the nightingale in, and it’s just like womp! You know, they knock you out. And every night I’m there with my audiences, and it’s no more than about thirty-five people a night for sensitivity reasons. And every night, there’s somebody who’s there weeping, you know, absolute weeping. And I get the letters and messages back from people going, “You know, I’ve left my job. I’ve left my husband. And, you know, that’s it. I’m no longer on that path.” You know, it does have a lot of change making in it.
EMIt has, I guess you could say, a mystical quality to it, that power of what it brings. And you spoke about that, that there’s a sense of dissolving that can be present there in that experience. And you could leave your state of mind and become unraveled and reconstituted, realigned, affirmed and renewed. Would you say that they’re mystical, the experiences you’ve had with nightingales?
SLThere’s a whole spectrum. Some nights I’m like, “Oh, God, do I have to go through this again?” You know, “Oh, it’s so cold. I’m so tired.” <laughs> And there are other nights, particularly, you know—We had, two weeks ago, that super moon, where I lay and the clock struck half twelve, and I was supposed to lead the audiences back, and, “I’ll give it another ten minutes” and “another ten minutes.” And, I just, you know—I couldn’t part from them. There’s, you know, there is a drug-like quality. And that dissolving, you know, sometimes it’s an entire self-dissolving. Sometimes I see it with people that you just see that sort of, how should I say, that sort of shell that people hold on to, just that little attrition that it gets into, people who have lived hard lives of resistance. You know, “I’m a romantic” and “I’m free spirited,” you know, “Let’s sing and dance in Mother Nature.” And I’ve had lots of time to practice it and laugh at myself about it and not care. And some people are coming with a lot of resistance, and the nightingale just has that ability to find the cracks, let the light through inside.
EMYou describe something about the way the nightingale sings, which was about silence, that there is as much power to the silence in the nightingale’s song as there is to the notes that it sings; and that it taught you about the great art of decorating silence, a phrase I like very much. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.
SLMmm, yeah, absolutely. It’s the kind of unspoken rule of what unaccompanied singing is. And British tradition, and very much the American Anglo-Irish tradition, Scots-Anglo-Irish tradition of folk song that went over to the Americas, was very much about solo unaccompanied. The Americans put a bit of instrumentation, fiddle and banjo to it, but in Great Britain—one singer, one song. And the space you held as a singer is all about the gaps you leave, because that’s the orchestration, that’s the arrangement, that’s where the listener can enter in. That’s the invitation. And learning from those old singers, you know, I really learned a lot in that art, and here was the nightingale doing exactly the same thing, even better, with such grace. And the timing that he leaves between expressions was formidably brave. And in that space, so much is happening. Although it’s silence, you know, it’s a very rich and fertile place for the imagination, for listening deeper into the places that one never knew they could hear, inside and outside. And the nightingales are doing it with great intention. This is not just because that’s the way it is; there is a reason why they’re leaving those spaces. And I can conject what they are, but there’s a lot more than we’ll ever know of why they are singing the way they do.
EMWhen I was younger, before I got involved in filmmaking, I was a jazz musician. And one of the great lessons I learned—or tried to learn, I should say—was when I was told, “It’s not the notes that matter; it’s the space around the notes that you leave. That’s what creates a deeper relationship with what you’re trying to express.”
SLJust know when to shut up, really. <laughs> But also, another thing that my teacher taught me, which was—and it’s an old adage—that you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in those proportions. And I like that, that actually in that space of silence there’s the opportunity for listening, and you receive so much more than when you’re just, you know, broadcasting. That’s a very sacred ratio, that.
EMThat there’s a space for communion in the silence more so than there is necessarily in the notes themself.
EMThere’s a question you ask in the book. It’s a big question and one that obviously haunts you a great deal, and that is, will the next generation be able to hear the nightingales?
SLThis is in our hands. One can be scientific about this and look at models of decline. And okay, so when I say next generation, I’m speaking specifically for people in England, because they only live in the very southeast part of England. And they’re declining at a rate of, like, 87 percent a year. So we’re expecting in thirty-five years they might be gone. They may not, because maybe they’ll cling on, but, actually, the wider issue for them, which concerns me more than anything, is that although we have the highest rate of nature depletion in the UK, in Europe, we’re one of the worst countries in the world for deforestation relative to the amount of ancient woodland we have; we are criminal in what we’re doing to our land. We have so little left, yet we’re destroying it so viciously and uncaringly. And that’s a big problem for the birds; but actually, I think where the greatest issue is coming from is their wintering grounds in Sub-Saharan Africa, the intensification of agriculture and also the heating up there and what that’s going to do to their winter life. And actually, if they don’t fatten up to make that journey back, they can’t return; and that worries me more than anything, because that’s the global issue. It’s not just about, you know, being more messy and allowing more scrub to develop and creating nightingale habitats, you know—which is a wonderful thing, because it’s good for all birds. But actually, what we’re looking at for our migrant species is a situation where they simply don’t have a home. It’s a migrant crisis. It’s going to be replicated in the human existence. So in some ways, of course, I’m devastated at the prospect that my, you know, my children and my children’s children won’t get to experience what I have. But I also know the other side of that: there’s worse things they’re going to face. The art that can emerge and the ways that we practice in our adoration of this bird today will be held on as available for that generation to experience as much as is possible in what the power of the nightingale was, if there ever becomes a “was.”
EMTowards the end of the book, you speak about, I guess, living in an age of extinction and use the term “solistalgia,” which is a term I guess you could say I painfully resonate with. Maybe that’s what we all do. That’s what it kind of embodies. And also the term “endlings,” which is what you use to describe the last of a species that is going extinct. And, you know, in these two strands of your work, collecting songs from singers who are the last of their line and singing with nightingales knowing that they may not be singing in England in thirty years, you know, change perhaps the way you see extinction. Although there is obviously the tremendous loss that we’re going to be facing individually and collectively as we embrace this apocalyptic time of climate breakdown, there is also the ever present need to fill our hearts with the richness our lands offer. It’s almost like you ended the book with that call. So I wonder if you could speak to that a bit.
SLYeah. You know, what we’re dealing with here—and we’re all dealing with it, and I know your listenership and you are commonly encountering this—the concept of grief. How do we celebrate grief and learn to dance with it and nature and these practices? My singing with nightingales is one of many ways that we can practice an entwinement with the natural world that can help us identify where that grief is. I feel the grief with the nightingale all the time: not just about his extinction, but knowing that at the end of May, he’ll stop singing and then fly off; leave me like a forlorn lover. There’s grief all throughout it, but also that grief comes with a great joy, because that is what nature does. The exuberance is there as a way of supporting us and allowing the sentimentality to be shared and consoled. And it makes me sound like a very morose person, <laughs> because I’m not. But actually, you know, I remember this from a wonderful account written in the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology, perhaps. A Nuu-chah-nulth elder was asked this question in an interview, and I really loved it, which was, “What would the ancestor—” It was in referring to the potlach. “What would they say if the ancestors came back today in, like, the 1990s and saw the potlaches today?” And he said, “I think the ancestors—” And it’s a question I often asked to the elders: what would your ancestors think? I’ve used that question. And he says, “Well, I think they’d seen it all changed a little bit. But they say, but you’re still celebrating the good times and making the best of what you have.” I’m misquoting here. And I kind of feel like nature is saying, “You know, just be joyful. Be playful. Be here, be present in us. And, yeah, take what you will respectfully and give back and that’s the best thing you can do.” I thought that was immensely inarticulate, <laughs>
EMIs there a song that you could perhaps leave us with that embodies some of what you just described? That joy that is present in the relationship with the living world?
SLYeah, there is, and it’s another of Stanley’s songs. And I’ll sing just the verse of it. It’s called “Lovely Molly,” and it sings of the mavis, which is Scottish for the song thrush, the turtledove, and the nightingale. And it’s a love song of a parting lover saying farewell as he goes off to war to fight for the country and will probably never return. And it’s that saying goodbye, but also with just a sense of hope. So here’s the chorus of “Lovely Molly.” <sings>
EMSam, thank you so much for joining us today. A real privilege and joy to be in conversation with you and to hear you sing.
SLThank you, Emmanuel. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.