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Underwater Blues

by j.s.lamb 12 months ago in album reviews

Let new-to-you-sounds ripple through your mind and over your heart.

Underwater Blues
Roger and Katharine Payne worked with Frank Watlington to create this album.

In 1970 Dr. Roger Searle Payne released an album featuring some of the biggest singers of all time — and I don’t mean Elvis, The Beatles or Frank Sinatra. Payne recorded whales. Humpback whales.

According to WIKI, Payne is “an American biologist and environmentalist famous for the 1967 discovery (with Scott McVay) of whale songs.” Also noted: Payne was the first to suggest fin whales and blue whales can communicate with sound across whole oceans, a theory since confirmed.

Payne’s recordings were packaged and labeled as “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” I got a copy shortly after it was released. I also had Judy Collins’ 1970 album “Whales & Nightingales,” which featured some of Payne’s work on the track “Farewell to Tarwathie.” (I’d always thought about splicing the Collins’ song onto Payne’s album to create an over-the-top double-dose of underwater blues. Never did.)

“Humpback” was a cooperative effort by Dr. Payne, his wife Katharine, and Navy engineer Frank Watlington. The album sold more than a hundred thousand copies, making it the best-selling environment album up until that time. Plus, it was credited with helping to launch the “Save the Whales” movement.

In 1977, Payne’s recordings were included in the Golden Record carried aboard the Voyager spacecraft. (I’d love to be around when an alien species pops the cork on that recording. Imagine the look on their faces—assuming, of course, they have faces.)

My experience is that Payne’s album is best listened to late at night, with candles lit and incense burning. Here are the tracks:

“Solo Whale”  —  9:32 (recording: Frank Watlington)

“Slowed-Down Solo Whale”  —  1:05 (recording: Frank Watlington)

“Tower Whales” —  3:23 (recording: Roger and Katharine Payne)

“Distant Whale”  —  3:55 (recording: Frank Watlington)

“Three Whale Trip” — 16:31 (recording: Roger and Katharine Payne)

“Songs of the Humpback Whale” may not be music in the classic sense, but it’s clear that it isn’t just random moans and groans, guttural rumblings, and throat shudders. With the light right and the mind clear, the songs are haunting. Longing. Yearning. Other-worldly.

Why care about these deep-water musical meanderings?

Great question. One that prompted me to write this poem:

We have lived on one planet.

Stepped on one moon.

Explored one solar system.

Observed one universe.

We do not know what we do not know.

Yet, in our ignorance,

We boldly march with bravado

Under a single banner:


Suffice to say, we have brains to use and hearts to follow. I think we’re obligated to use both. Roger Searle Payne certainly did.

“Songs of the Humpback Whale” not only sold well, it was enormously influential: winning awards, inspiring artists, and motivating environmentalists. Payne’s recordings were even featured in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986), the plot of which centered on the rescuing of humpback whales from extinction.

Some day this week, dial down the distractions around you. Set low the lights. Even better, do what I used to do: light a candle—fire up the incense. Then click here and listen to “Solo Whale.”

Let new-to-you (yet ancient) sounds spread through your mind and over your heart like bubbly lace-surf on moon-lit sand.

Burgling-gurgling. Swissssssh-swasssssh.

Drift-dream of deep blue waters and quiet seas. Soak in the solace of glitter-kissed waves and midnight skies. Get lost. Lost in the songs — of the humpback whale.

FOOTNOTE: From 1960-1985 Roger Payne was married to noted elephant researcher Katharine Boynton “Katy” Payne, who studied music and biology in college and did research in Zimbabwe. Katy worked with her husband and Navy engineer, Frank Watlington, to capture the sounds of humpback whales. She performed similar research on the vocalizations of elephants in what was called the Elephant Listening Project. For more about that project, click here. Want to learn more? In 1999, Payne published her discoveries about elephants in a book titled. “Silent Thunder.”

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Retired journalist. Author of "Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales," a collection of short stories about how I survived the U.S. Navy and kept my sense of humor. (Available on Amazon.)

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