It’s just before midnight, deep in the Sussex countryside, and a small group led by the bravely inventive folk singer Sam Lee sets out to go singing with nightingales. We walk in silence in the dark – no torches are allowed – skirting a wood and then clambering up a bank on to a disused railway track. And here, in the bushes, a male nightingale is singing, blasting through the silence with a song that is astonishingly loud and exuberant, with a constantly changing, complex flurry notes broken by periods silence.
We sit and listen, then Sam picks up a shruti box – the instrument used by Indian musicians to create drone effects – and begins overtone singing, where two notes are produced at once. “They love the harmonics”, he explains. Instead flying f, the bird now joins in, singing even louder than before. And he continues singing when tonight’s guest musician, the composer and arranger Kate St John begins improvising on cor anglais. And so it continues for well over an hour, with Sam switching to folk songs, including The Nightingale, course, and Kate playing thumb piano. “The birds know how to create a dialogue,” Sam explains. “They love cellos and flutes and folk songs – but not guitars or singer-songwriters.”
This is the fourth year in which he has invited audiences to listen to nightingales and learn about their plight – “an 85% decline in 30-40 years, and only 5,500 pairs left in the whole the UK. They could be gone in 20 or 30 years. It’s unbelievable”. But this spring the project has taken on a new significance, because the nightingale has become a symbol resistance, thanks largely to Sam.
The bird played a role in the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, which ended with an emotional mass singalong Sam’s new version A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, performed (with nightingale accompaniment) in Berkeley Square itself. And it has also helped a very different conservationist pressure group, the Royal Society for the Protection Birds. The song the nightingale, and those other endangered birds, is now a hit, thanks to that delightfully unlikely single Let Nature Sing, which Sam co-produced for the RSPB, and which reached No 18 in the charts this month. “The RSPB are delighted. It’s hard to get to No 1 against Taylor Swift.”
He was, he admits, initially concerned that the RSPB might disapprove him singing with nightingales as being “disruptive a rare, endangered species … but Adrian Thomas, who is developing their birdsong library said this was ‘the most pround experience he has had with birds, in terms getting people to fall in love with them’”. Thomas provided the recordings for the single, which were then re-arranged by Sam and Bill Barclay from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as “a sort tapestry birds”. His original idea had been “a song about birds with famous musicians who love birds – a bit like the BBC version Perfect Day. They said it was too big, but we’ll do something like that next year”.
He says that the success the single has been “massively helped by Extinction Rebellion, which opened people’s ears and eyes to the situation … that we are experiencing climate catastrophe”, and XR and the RSPB are “there with exactly the same purpose. They are the yin and the yang. One is the rebellious brother and the other is the hard-working, quiet one.”
He was involved with XR from the start. On 12 April, just before the campaign began “I brought a lot the XR leaders here to Sussex to spend a night with the nightingales, in preparation for the rebellion – just before it kicked f. And when the rebellion started I was there, sitting in the road and singing. None us had any idea how enormous it would be.” So how does traditional music tie in with all that? “A lot folk songs work wonderfully in that context – mourning the loss things we love.”
Surprisingly, there will be no nightingale songs on his next album, “but there will be turtle doves”. It’s called Old Wow (the name he gives to the power nature), includes folk songs and features Bernard Butler, Suede fame, playing electric guitar – an instrument Sam had previously shunned. It was recorded “before XR existed but in every way it’s full nature”. So is he a protest singer? “Sure I am. If you are not protesting you are not caring. But I’m not a shouter. I do it the st way, through folk songs.” The nightingales are still singing as he heads back to his tent in the woods.
• Singing With Nightingales continues until the end May. Old Wow is released by Cooking Vinyl in October.