Adam Boyce portrayed Charles Ross Taggart, "The Old Country Fiddler," in a program sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council in the Hopkinton Library recently. Boyce (as Taggart) used his violin not only to play popular tunes, but also to imitate the songs of birds.
Boyce narrated the humorous stories that Taggart had told during his travels across our country to perform with his violin. According to Boyce, Taggart could get his violin to imitate a child singing a nursery rhyme and mimic the songs of birds like the whip-poor-will, the chickadee and the mockingbird.
The mockingbird is notorious for mimicking other birds and also unusual sounds such as a squeaky gate, a water pump, a tree frog or a cat's meow. Now the song of the mockingbird was being produced on the strings of a violin.
Carol Foss, director of conservation for the New Hampshire Audubon Society, told me that once there was a mockingbird in her backyard that made a perfect rendition of the whistle her family used to call their dog.
"This was very confusing for our family dog," she said.
Mockingbirds are not the only birds with the ability to imitate other sounds. Naturalists have long been fascinated by birds that mimic the calls of other birds and the noises they hear. Foss said that one October while she was out in the field she heard the cry of an osprey.
"This is too late in the season for an osprey," she thought. But then she discovered it was a bluebird imitating an osprey.
David Attenborough explained on his website that "the lyrebird of Australia is an expert mimic known for vocalizing such sounds as a chain saw, a camera shutter, a fire alarm and a crying baby - to name a few examples. This bird can repeat almost any sound in the world thanks to its syrinx, (the vocal organ of birds) the most intricate of all the world's song birds - giving the bird an unmatched songbook."
When Boyce completed his impersonation of Taggart and took off his Taggart hat, he talked about how Taggart, the comedian, musician and folklorist, had traveled all over the United States as "The Old Country Fiddler," entertaining audiences with outlandish stories about rural New England and playing the violin. Taggart had made 40 recordings starting in 1910 and was one of the first entertainers to appear in talking moving pictures. But what impressed me the most about his performances, as portrayed by Boyce, is how he could use his violin to create the song of the mockingbird. Now the mockingbird was being mocked by "The Old Country Fiddler."