“Bird on a Wire” and the Return of the Bald Eagle

Last year, along with John Fullbright’s cover of Steve Earle’s “Me and the Eagle,” we posted a live feed of a bald eagle and its eaglets in a nest in Iowa. Well, those babies have flown off, but the feed now has a bald eagle with some new eggs, so we check in on the new babies while we also listen to a Johnny Cash song on a day that would have been the country legend’s eightieth birthday. First, check out the live feed from Decorah, Iowa below.

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February 2013 Update: In case you find this page in the off-season for bald eaglets in Iowa, here is a live feed of an eagle cam in Florida.

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The nest seems fairly secure for the high winds, but seeing the family so high up reminds me of one of Leonard Cohen’s most covered songs, “Bird on a Wire.” Cohen originally recorded the song in 1968 for the album Songs from a Room (1969). The song has been covered by The Neville Brothers, Willie Nelson, KD Lang, and others. My favorite cover is the one made by Johnny Cash for the 1994 album that marked a comeback for him, American Recordings. The weariness of his voice goes perfectly with the song.

A version of Cash singing the song with an orchestra appeared on Unearthed (2003), and Cohen has also performed his song with an orchestra. But I like the sparse instrumentation versions.

The song is so beautiful that Kris Kristofferson, who has written many beautiful songs, has stated that he’d like the first three lines of “Bird on a Wire” on his tombstone.

Like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.

The song has been described as a “bohemian My Way,” and one can sense a more realistic and darker life appraisal in Cohen’s song than the Frank Sinatra classic. While “My Way” is underscored with pride, “Bird on a Wire” is tempered with regret (“I have torn everyone who reached out to me”). There are some reports that the song inspired the title of the Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn movie, Bird on a Wire (1990), but it is hard to see the meaning of the song in the action-comedy film, so I hope that story is not true.

For today, here is to the Iowa bald eagles who unlike us, live free without regret. And here is to Johnny Cash on his birthday, because his music helped us comprehend freedom as well as sorrow, atonement, and grace.

What is your favorite version of “Bird on a Wire”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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