We’re very excited to welcome Tuscon, Arizona folk singer Karima Walker to the shop for a performance on Wednesday night. She will be joined by Sterling Roots and Crow Call, one of our favorite local traditional groups. Today’s post is for them. Details about the show can be found on our events page here, and on Facebook here.
Crows lent their latin name to the constellation Corvus, a quadrilateral pattern seen in the southern hemisphere near Virgo and Hyrda. Its largest star is Algorab, which is the Arabic word for crow. Writing in The Fixed Stars and Constellations in 1923, Vivian Robson characterizes the star by its “destructiveness, malevolence, fiendishness, repulsiveness and lying.”
Crows have been with us since the dawn of history — Ovid claimed it was Apollo’s ire which made their feathers black, and aboriginals in Australia believed the birds performed the promethean task of the theft of fire itself. Crows are, in some ways, second to dogs as our first friends — although they remain distant relatives. Recent studies have proven crows can recognize and recall individual human faces. Its possible they can report to others the worst of us — crows may be one of the very few non-human animals capable of displacement, meaning they can communicate about things that are happening in a different spatial or temporal place than their current location. Crows can tell stories.
Creatures in the corvus genus has one of the highest measurements of relative brain size in the world (this is called the encephalization quotient, in case you’re wondering). In fact, we’re finding crows to be a smarter and smarter the more we study them, even capable of understanding causality, as demonstrated in this experiment.
While it was once believed crows lived for centuries, their actual lifespan is about twenty years — a captive crow named Tata was believed to be fifty-nine when he died in 2006, as reported in the Washington Post. Most crows are monogamous, and offspring remain with a breeding pair for several years to help protect the nest from raccoons, snakes and cats. Their communal roosts, commonly called a murder, can include as many as tens of thousands of birds. The poor residents of Danville, Illinois are believed to be outnumbered 4-to-1 by crows.
Crows are naturally curious and playful, clear signs of their intelligence. They will often toy with inedible objects such as litter, but they do not steal and collect shiny objects as is sometimes said. They would best be described as scattered hoarders, since they don’t keep their treasures in a single location such as a nest.
Inventor Joshua Klein presented a vending machine for crows at a technology conference in 2008. The crows would learn to pick up garbage and receive a treat in exchange. The indigenous crows on the island of New Calendonia create their own tools for extracting insects. Hooded crows in Israel have learned to use bread crumbs as fishing bait. Farmers have crafted a variety of traps to test the intelligence of crows for centuries, creating the anecdote of the counting crow. No account suggests any corvus could count as high as seven, however, as in the last song on the Counting Crows’ first album, August and Everything After.
“A Murder of One”
The band likely takes its name not from crows who count, but from a once-familiar nursery rhyme. One could count crows to receive a premonition of the future. Here is one variation, which you’ll recognize reflected in the song.
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own self.
Given the crow’s role in human mythology and superstition, it’s not surprising they appear frequently in our music. For instance, one of the strangest songs on the early Dylan albums is “Black Crow Blues,” notably for being the first on which he accompanied himself on the piano.
“Black Crow Blues” by Bob Dylan
Its surprising how the song presages Dylan’s sound from the late sixties and early seventies, where his jaunty and idiosyncratic piano style steps to the fore. That an alternate version more in the style of the other songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan was left on the cutting room floor suggests he was already interested in expanding the range of folk music as early as his second album.
Fans of local music surely remember Crow, the bluesy rock band from the late 60s whose early hit “Evil Woman” was covered by Black Sabbath. Crow has broken up and reunited several times over the years. The cover of their second LP, Crow by Crow, depicts a gigantic crow as a member of the band.
A “black bird” plays a lead role in the second song on Brian Laidlaw’s extraordinary concept album about Bonnie and Clyde, Amoratorium. A crow is seen on the cover of the album.
“Know my Rider” by Brian Laidlaw
The crows in Walt Disney’s Dumbo were endowed with wit and insight, and while it has been suggested by some that their appearance is representative of endemic racism in classic Disney cartoons, it should be noted they are the only characters besides Timothy the Mouse who treat Dumbo with kindness. The tragic singer Cliff Edwards performed the lead on their song, “When I See an Elephant Fly.”
This last song is from Crow Call, who inspired this little expedition into the spooky awesomeness of our black feathered friends.
They’ve described this song from their self-titled debut disc as being “about crows as messengers, being aware of their presence as harbingers in our lives and listening to what they have to tell us.” We chose Crow Call as one of our favorite local albums of 2014, but our previous posts about the disc have hardly hit on its eerie darkness. “They Know” is a fine example of how their music feels like Black Sabbath if filtered through Charlie Parr.
“They Know” by Crow Call
Wednesday night’s show here at Hymie’s starts at 7pm and features The Sterling Roots, Crow Call, and Karima Walker from Tuscon AZ. While shows at Hymie’s are usually free, we are asking for a $5 donation since there is a touring artist on the bill.