Hod Pharis: “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing”

In honor of the first day of spring

I first encountered Canadian songwriter Hod Pharis’s song “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” on Pathway to West Virginia, the first album recorded by Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice.

It was 1989, and my good friend Rolf had just returned from a road trip that had taken him through West Virginia. Rolf was the quintessential lover of old-time and early country music. He and his sister had been at a rest stop, and he asked about the music being played.

The clerk said, “Oh, yes! Great album! Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice.” Rolf bought a cassette tape and brought it back to our group of grad school friends in Madison, Wisconsin.

We were all entirely captivated and mesmerized by these two singers – such beautiful voices, exquisite but often unusual harmonies, Ginny’s Primitive Baptist cadence blending with Kay’s alto.

“I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” quickly became our favorite cut from the album. Oh, how we loved the story of the young man who meets a girl in the hills. She sweetly steals his heart, and they plan to be married in the spring, which seems like it will never come. But eventually spring arrives, and their wedding is like a dream come true. Such a lovely tale, such a sweet and joyous song. What was not to love?

We were so inspired by the song, in fact, that we figured out how to play and sing it. I played my violin – which I was learning to play more like a fiddle and less like the classical violin I’d grown up playing in school. Bill played guitar. Deb, Rolf, and Wendy joined in on the singing, and we memorized the intricate lyrics. We finally had it all together and “performed” it on my screened-in, second-floor porch one summer day. When we finished, we were surprised to hear applause erupt from outside – my neighbors had enjoyed hearing our rendition.

Within a couple of years, I had taken a job as an English professor in West Virginia and had met Ginny and Kay, both of whom I count among my beloved Appalachian friends. I love hearing them sing at festivals and in late-night jam sessions afterward.

And of course, I love listening to their many recordings. Together, they’ve recorded Come All You Tenderhearted and Bristol: A Tribute to the Carter Family. Ginny appears with Hazel Dickens and Carol Elizabeth Jones on Heart of a Singer. She also recorded The Family Reunion: Three Generations of Southern Singing with her father, Ben Hawker, and her daughter, Heidi Christopher. Ginny has also recorded solo albums, Letters from My Father and After It’s Gone, frequently backed by her husband, fiddler Tracy Schwarz. Ginny and Tracy together have released two albums, Good Songs for Hard Times and Draw Closer. Next week, Kay will release Tear Down the Fences, recorded with bluegrass pioneer Alice Gerrard. The first cut is – wait for it! – “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.”

Though this will always be Ginny and Kay’s song to me, the composer is actually Alberta’s Hod Pharis, and the song – written in 1952 – has been recorded by numerous acts. Though Pharis recorded a couple of versions of the song in the 1950s, it did not become a hit until it was recorded in 1957 by The Browns (a trio comprised of Jim Ed Brown and his sisters, Maxine and Bonnie). The Browns took the song to number four on the U.S. Billboard country charts. After the song hit it big, many other acts recorded it, making it one of the most recorded songs written by a Canadian. Given its great success, “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015.

If you’ve been waiting for winter to end, you’ll enjoy this song about the joyous arrival of spring!

Watch and Listen:Watch the Browns sing their chart-topping hit, “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.” And to get a taste of Ginny and Kay’s beautiful singing, listen to “On the Rock Where Moses Stood.”