17 November 2020

Peter Wonson's "Swan Song"

The CD arrived earlier this month.  I knew of course that a "swan song" refers to an artist's final performance, but I wondered where the term arose.  Or - to paraphrase Chico Marx - why a swan?

First the basics:
The swan song (ancient Greek: κύκνειον ᾆσμα; Latin: carmen cygni) is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song just before their death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in ancient Greece by the 5th to the 3rd century BC and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.  [details at the link]

Peterson et al. [of the field guide] note that Cygnus olor is "not mute but lacks bugling call, merely honking, grunting, and hissing on occasion." However, the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), a winter visitor to parts of the eastern Mediterranean, does possess a 'bugling' call, and has been noted for issuing a drawn-out series of notes as its lungs collapse upon expiry, both being a consequence of an additional tracheal loop within its sternum. This was proposed by naturalist Peter Pallas as the basis for the legend... The whooper swan's nearest relatives, the trumpeter and tundra swans, share its musical tracheal loop
Wait... what???  Loops of the trachea?  Never heard of such a thing, despite 30+ years of academic research on (human) lungs.  So - time to dive into some research publications.
This research examines the evolution and phylogenetic distribution of a peculiar and often overlooked character seen in birds, herein called tracheal and esophageal displacement. Tracheal and esophageal displacement refers to an asymmetrically situated trachea and/or esophagus along the length of the neck. This contrasts with what would be perceived as the “normal” (midsagittal) placement of these organs, wherein the two organs are situated along the ventral midline of the neck with no deviation... essentially all birds have a laterally displaced trachea and/or esophagus

It is hypothesized here that lateral displacement of the cervical viscera evolved in birds to function as an ever increasingly efficient bypass system to allow the trachea to remain a short, straight, and patent tube able to keep up with the demands of a more mobile and flexible neck. A more loosely attached trachea and esophagus would be beneficial for those birds with highly dynamic neck movements.

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) has a trachea and esophagus that travels 12 cm along the ventral midline of the neck until the fifth cervical vertebra where they pass right laterally across it to become situated well dorsal to the vertebral column (Fig 8). By the twelfth cervical vertebra they cut back across the cervical column to become positioned at the ventral midline once more to enter the thorax. As the trachea passes across the fifth cervical it also rotates onto its side.

Dorsolateral placement of the organs is, essentially, nothing more than the result of the organs cutting past a highly S-shaped neck. In particular, it is because the organs cut across the “caudal loop” ... of the S of the cervical column.
At this point I was relieved to note that "loops" is a term used to describe sinuosity.  

But then I found in an article on avian paleontology that Panraogallus (extinct birds) had tracheas that actually did loop:

The trachea of Panraogallus appears to have coiled twice outside its chest, and may have coiled back towards the chest, before going up to the chest cavity again where it attached to the lungs... The coiled trachea of Panraogallus was possibly longer than its body, and it probably produced sounds with a lower frequency and with reduced harmonics, compared to pheasants of a similar size.
And note in the illustration that the line drawing "c" at upper right shows the course of the trachea in a Helmeted curassow - a currently-living bird.

You learn something every day, even at the end of a career of learning.  But this has become TMI, so I'll drop the topic and get back to the CD, starting with this review:
In 1968, the Night Watchmen (originally called The Embryos) combined with the Dartmouth band Ham Sandwich. After Logan and Calvert left the group, Pinkston and Wilkes recruited Peter Wonson (class of'68) and Ned Berndt ('72), along with Hanover residents Ken Aldrich and Skip Truman. They formed Tracks, which went on to record original material and become a "super popular" headliner in the New England music scene, says Logan.Review (of 1991 CD compilation): 

Not to be confused with Bowie guitarist Earl Slick's 1972 group on Capitol Records or a late-'70s Boston punk band fronted by Lori Doll, this Tracks reigned between 1969 and 1974 and had the distinction of being produced by Wayne Wadhams, lead singer of the Fifth Estate (which hit with "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" in 1967). Along with a unique version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," this ensemble comes up with a real sleeper in the tune "Pawnbroker" -- a strong, methodical ballad featuring great vocals and interplay from the guitar and keyboard that put it in a league with the legendary Modern Lovers...

Russell Pinkston: "In the spring of 1969, my junior year at Dartmouth College, I dropped out of school to play full time with a rock band called “Tracks.” For the next five years, through various incarnations of the group, Tracks played all over New England in night clubs, fraternities, high school proms, and the occasional “big time” rock concert. We opened for acts such as the James Gang, Canned Heat, The Chambers Brothers, and Tom Rush, and by the time we broke up in 1974, we had recorded three full albums of original music. Although we had a couple of offers from producers, we never got signed by a record label, so soon after we called it quits, we made a triple album of our demo tapes as a “going away present” for our fans.
More about the history of Tracks and the New England rock scene of the 1960s is available in "Old Times, Good Times: A Rock and Roll Story," at Stowe Today, and in The Caledonian Record.

"All Along the Watchtower" recording from The Very Best of Tracks.


  1. I've got to pick a nit: You are paraphrasing Chico Marx, not Groucho.

    1. Nitpicking is always welcomed here in TYWKIWDBI. Text amended. Thank you, dragonmamma.

  2. > even at the end of a career of learning.

    i did not know that you could retire from learning? maybe i am just 'naturally nosy', so retiring from that would be like, a non sequitur?


  3. If you think that's weird, check out the woodpecker tongue. http://www.hiltonpond.org/ThisWeek030308.html

  4. I timidly submit that while a swan song about trachea is um ... important... of greater merit would be a discussion about the legal ways you can rid yourself of a noxious president.
    I live in New Zealand, where a local national news source informs me that the USA has passed the quarter million mark regarding actual people who have ceased to live because of the Corona virus.
    Real living, breathing people with families and friends, that have died from a disease that the government did far less than what was morally required.
    The virus is horrific indeed, yes, but we shouldn't shield ourselves from the fact that the United States has a president that has done and continues to do, the USA a disservice.
    I live far away, across many thousands of kilometres of salty water, yet I metaphorically weep for what is happening in your country.
    And while you all seemingly live by the rules laid down on a piece of parchment a couple of hundred years ago, I always assumed that you had laws in place to stop the top guy destroying your country, your credibility, ... yourselves.
    I am but an ordinary guy, I work with a hammer and wood and at home I care for unwanted cats and rabbits, but I have enough intelligence to wonder about the stars, the universe ... enough intelligence to act in line with my morals to stop someone ruining the very fabric of my existence.
    It seems amazing that the USA lacks such a safeguard, such an off switch.
    I have written, perhaps on this site, maybe others, about my thoughts on the American people treating their president the way John Fitzgerald Kennedy was treated ... and lacking any edit button I hope that my views were not displayed, for I am not an actual fan of people being shot, but there must be some way that will end a 6 year old man child's spoilt tantrum.
    If his insane actions affect me here in New Zealand I am going to be mighty pissed off.
    I apologise for unloading on you, you surely feel the pain more, but there really is no where to vent, so thanks.

    1. You are quite welcome to vent here, WilliamRocket. I wish I had the time to write a detailed reply to your "cri de coeur" we'll call it.

      One thing that Trump has done that should be beneficial in the long run is that his behavior and actions have caused literally millions of Americans to come out of their chronic self-centered smugness to the realization that there are elements and attitudes in our country that are frankly frightening. There is a recognition that while Trump has been a firebrand, the fuel was already there, and there are concerns about how long and how intensely (not whether) "trumpism" will outlast trump. The polarization that now exists is so severe that the usual compromise politics that Biden grew up with will be difficult to achieve. One hopes that the eventual resolution or subsidence of the pandemic and its attendant social and economic ills will provide some relief, but TBH there are a lot of angry and fearful Americans nowadays.

    2. William, as a resident of the Southern US who considered myself politically unaffiliated until Trump convinced me to join the Democrats, I have two thoughts to share on your frustration:

      1. We have multiple "off switches" for a destructive president. However, we purportedly are a democracy, and subject to an obscene level of partisanship in a two-party system. A majority of one party's voters thinks Trump is GOOD for the country, which is enough to block meaningful action. Almost half of our voters, and about a third of all eligible voters, voted that he should get a second term. As baffling as that is, it's enough support to negate extraordinary action.

      2. I have feared since 2016 that some crazy would take things into their own hands. As destructive as Trump is, I can't imagine how bad things would get if he were martyred.

      Also: I spent New Year's in Wellington, traveled the North island for a week. Your country is absolutely gorgeous, and I can't wait to return. I'm jealous of you for Jacinda Ardern.

  5. This is really fascinating. I thought the expression came from Tennyson's poem Tithonus and the line "And after many a summer dies the swan," that's also the title of an Aldous Huxley novel. It's not one of his better ones in my humble opinion, although, funny enough, his best novel--again my humble opinion--is his swan song, Island.
    Anyway you prompted me to check the OED which has the earliest recorded use of "swan song" from Carlyle in 1834, twenty-six years before Tennyson's poem.
    Thank you for sending me on that deep dive.


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