Let Nature Sing

Meeting Sam Lee

To produce our hit single, Let Nature Sing, the RSPB worked with bird song-loving folk singer and musician Sam Lee. Here, our resident bird song champion, Adrian Thomas, finds out more about the man behind the music.

The nightingale that started a love affair

Whenever I meet someone who is as besotted with bird song as I am, I always like to find out where that love originated, so I posed the question to Sam. "Well, I don't remember a time when I didn't love it," he told me, "but there was a defining moment in 2007 when I heard my first nightingale. Suddenly I realised the power that one bird could have. It felt so profound. I went back to the same spot a year later hoping to hear it again, but I was too late in the season, and yet it was as if I could still hear it in my head. A spell had been cast!"

Awards and an anniversary

Sam's folk career really began to take off in 2013 when he was nominated for best folk singer of the year, best album and best original track. So when he wrote to the BBC that year to see if they were interested in marking the 90th anniversary of when the cellist, Beatrice Harrison, first played live with nightingales, Radio 4 leapt at the chance for a documentary. In it, Sam played with and sang with nightingales for the first time, and was blown away by the interaction.

"It was an epiphany for me; I just hadn't expected such an exceptional interplay with the nightingales – their songs become all the richer as they respond to the music you gently offer them. I then started taking people along to experience it, and they all seemed to get a deeper sense of connection and intimacy with the natural world, something we rarely allow ourselves. Nightingale song seems almost a mirror to our emotions, and it is as if people rediscover the voice of the nightingale deep inside themselves."

The start of something beautiful

Sam now lays on a series of events each spring called Singing with Nightingales [add in link to the SWN website]. Attendees gather around a campfire for some foraged food, Sam regales them with the rich folklore of the nightingale, and then he and a guest musician perform some acoustic music as the sun goes down.

Then, once it is dark, everyone processes in absolute silence and by the light only of the moon to hear nightingales, and for Sam to delicately weave music around it.

Sam also goes on a turtle dove pilgrimage each year to honour what is now our most threatened bird species in the UK. For three days, people can join him as he treks across Sussex, living on the land for a few days, sleeping on it, tracing the ancient songlines of the county. The journey starts at the Plough Inn in Rusper where, in 1903, the composer Vaughan Williams heard the landlord singing an ancient traditional song called Turtle Dove. On the pilgrimage, Sam “carries” the song to one of the last places you can still hear the gentle purring turtle dove song, which is on the Knepp Estate. Sam calls it “rewilding” the song, handing it back to the bird that inspired it.

The power of birds

So why does folk music have such rich links to bird song? After all, it appears in so many songs. "This is just conjecture," Sam says, "but I think that what we are hearing is the residues of a prior affection and affiliation that people had with birds, from a time when they would have looked to the birds around them as messengers, prophecy-makers, indicators of season, of change. We probably can only just guess at how powerful birds were as markers in people's lives."

I wondered what Sam had planned for the future. "There is so much to do to help people connect with bird song and with nature. I'm developing a programme of 24-hour nature immersion experiences. I'm also building an app which is like an augmented reality with nightingales. And I am due to have a book out next spring about our relationship with nightingales. In all of these things, people are so important – I like to think I'm opening up doors so that music and bird song can be introduced to each other and all of us."