Roy Acuff was a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s, straight out of the Old-Time Religion school of country. Here are the opening lines of one of his biggest and oddest hits, “The Great Speckled Bird”:
“What a beautiful thought I am thinkingConcerning a great speckled birdRemember her name is recordedOn the pages of God’s Holy Word.All the other birds are flocking ’round herAnd she is despised by the squadBut the great speckled bird in the BibleIs one with the great church of God.”
Try squeezing those lyrics into a million-selling tune today and see how it works out for you.
The reference is to Jeremiah 12:9: “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her.” It’s mysterious, yes. (Starling and guinea fowl are two guesses, if you must be literal-minded about the speckles.) Acuff sang the song many a time at the Grand Old Opry, where it was always a smash.
Not that he couldn’t get funky. “The Wasbash Cannonball” is delightfully loose-limbed and “Wreck on the Highway” is just plain creepy. (“I heard the crash on the highway, but I didn’t hear nobody pray.”)
And not that Roy Acuff wasn’t savvy. He was a founding partner in Acuff-Rose Music, which published “Pretty Woman” for Roy Orbison, among many other tunes, and sold to Sony for $157 million after Acuff’s death.
Happy birthday, Mr. Acuff. Here’s hoping it all turned out for you the way it does at the end of “The Great Speckled Bird”:
“When He cometh descending from heaven
On the cloud that He writes in His Word
I’ll be joyfully carried to meet Him
On the wings of that great speckled bird.”
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