Monday, April 3, 2017

Children's songs and bird protection in the mid-1800s.

In 1859, the editor of the American Agriculturist, estimating 200,000 child readers in the paper's audience, ran a regular feature, "The Editor and his Young Readers." For the February issue, an artist had been commissioned to provide a wintery image to accompany the column. The editor was impressed by the quality of the resulting engraving, but not the theme: "Trapping Birds." Clearly the publication's bird protection message had not reached everyone...
[W]e confess we don't like the subject of the picture. We don't like the looks of those boys trying to catch the innocent little snow birds. If the birds knew, wouldn't they be off? One little fellow, not quite under the trap, seems to be a little suspicious of danger. He is peering about to see if any harm is near. Don't you hope he'll fly away and scare the rest too? 
The editor then turned to the children depicted in the image:
Do you quite like the appearance of the boy who holds the string, and is no doubt the head of the party? With his coat off, his trowsers tucked into his boots, and his hat set on one side, we think there is a "don't care" look about him that is not very promising. "Don't care" is a bad beginning for any boy to make. If the truth could be known, perhaps we should find him one who has left his threshing in the barn, the roof of which you can just see over the fence in the background, and taking the grain screen, he has coaxed the other boys who should be at school, to go out with him to trap the snow-birds. A boy that would trap such innocent little fellows, that do no harm and that are useless when caught, would be likely to do such tricks. 
The image provided a pedagogical opportunity. Bird trapping was a sign of poor moral character in general. These boys should not be emulated. But there was hope even for boys like these.
Some one should sing to him that sweet little song "Chick-a-dee-dee,"--written by our "Uncle Frank,"--to soften his hard nature a little. 
"Uncle Frank," occasional contributor to the Agriculturist, was Francis C. Woodworth, who published books for children and the periodical "Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet." The official title of the song, published by the periodical in 1852, was "The Song of the Snowbird." The editor strongly believed the song could work magic. The following February (1860), he inserted the entire eight-verse song and its melody in the Children's section, asserting, "We can hardly believe that any boy who sings or even reads these words, would ever after try to kill these innocent birds, as we have seen some do before now. "
click on image to see larger version

I have provided a MIDI version of the melody below for the benefit of those who can't sight-read music. 

The song, while dramatizing the bird and its cordial relationship with children, really says little directly about bird protection. Rather it expresses a common religious theme: "Creation" in its wisdom provides for even the smallest creatures. 

But there was a song, or to be more accurate a poem with a variety of musical settings, that was ubiquitous during the mid-1800s and directly advocated bird protection: "Don't Kill the Birds," by Daniel C. Colesworthy. The poem had shown up in agricultural periodicals as early as 1843 (Southern Cultivator) and was a common selection in children's readers and songbooks well into the 20th century. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1893) noted in his obituary that the poem was said to have had "great influence in arresting the slaughter of those innocents by inculcating in the minds of children a sentiment of mercy towards them."

From 1852 reader Songs for the Little Ones at Home
I've found three completely different musical settings for the poem, which I've embedded below in MIDI piano versions. 

The first is from Baker's American School Music Book (1845), music credited to E.L. White.

The second is from The Teacher's Institute (1874), music credited to "E."

The third is from The normal music course (1893), compiled by John W. Tufts. 

While I assume the first setting is the one most children knew, I don't have full confidence that it was any of these. Regardless, children sang it. By 1869, when some horticulturists were searching for relief from the bird laws, it had become a point of irritation for at least one writer in the Cultivator and Country Gentleman (May 20), who invoked "The tow-headed boys and freckle-faced girls who, in their musical moments, have piped forth in plaintive tones--"Don't kill the birds, the pretty birds, Which sing around our door" as a component of his frustration. 

Incidentally this is a different poem/song than the "Don't Kill the Birds" that had a place in Mormon hymnals for many years. 
from Tune book for the primary associations of the children of Zion
That poem seems to be from the pen of Clara F. Berry. Mormons had a special regard for insectivorous birds dating from the Miracle of the Gulls in 1848. I've found at least one writer who regrets the hymn's eventual disappearance from the repertoire, claiming it had an impact on him as a would-be boy hunter.  

I've embedded the MIDI piano version below.


One more example:

In the July 1861 issue of New England Farmer, a correspondent told the following tale about the effectiveness of a song:

I have been led to place [a] high estimate on stories, songs, or other articles more especially adapted to attract the attention or interest the feelings of boys, in consequence of having been made acquainted with the fact that the singing of a song called "The Farmer's Best Friends," [A. Holloway, Mt. Brydges, C.W.] which was printed in the Genesee Farmer during 1859, seemed to one who takes a deep interest in the rising generation to have very certainly exerted quite an influence on the singer himself, and on a squad of boys with whom he used to associate. They left off, at all events, both last year and this spring so far, the two practices which are so common with many boys, namely, the shooting of birds and the robbing of their nests.
He thus recommended it to the readership of the New England Farmer:

Having good assurance that this particular song has had so happy an influence on one squad of thoughtless, if not positively cruel and mischievous boys, I have been induced to copy it for use in your columns, for the very natural and confident hope that what has done good in one instance may do a like good in a great many other instances. Some of your subscribers can persuade good singers to commit it to memory, and can get it sung on suitable occasions; and wherever there is any goodness in the heart-soil upon which such seed is scattered, surely there must be a harvest of more or less value.
The "song" was a poem (no musical setting) but one that could be recited in a "musical" way. It began:
Destroy not the birds;
They're the farmers' best friends;
For the little they spoil
They make ample amends. 
Some fruit they will eat;
But grudge it them not;
For the good that they do
Should not be forgot.
They keep down the insects,
Whose rapid increase
Would injure our harvests
Till harvests would cease.
With their songs they amuse
Our wearisome hours,
And their presence enlivens
The shadiest bowers. 
Then forgive their slight faults;
They make ample amends;
And do not forget
They're the farmer's best friends.
Unlike "Don't Kill the Birds," this song would not endure. 

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