Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has a lofty goal: exploring each of the 50 United States in song. He's already released a critically acclaimed full-length CD simply called "Michigan," and he's just finished a new record about Illinois. Independent radio producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister were curious about how Stevens writes his songs, so they introduced Stevens to the small town of Brinkley, Arkansas.

SIEGEL: Brinkley is located just a few miles from where the ivory-billed woodpecker recently was rediscovered. The ivory-bill had been thought extinct. In fact, the previous confirmed sighting of the bird in the United States was in Louisiana back in 1944. That was in what was known as the Singer Tract, an area which was clear-cut to make sewing machine boxes and then ammunition cases and caskets during World War II.

NORRIS: The rediscovery of the ivory-bill was big news and brought a ray of hope to the residents of Brinkley. Producers Collison and Meister spoke with people in the town, then shared the interviews with Sufjan Stevens. He wrote a song about the ivory-bill, known as the lord god or great god bird. Together, they offer this portrait of Brinkley and the bird.

Ms. SANDRA KEMMER (Executive Director, Brinkley Chamber of Commerce): My name is Sandra Kemmer, and I'm executive director and secretary and dishwasher and mop-pusher--anyway--for the Brinkley Chamber of Commerce, and I was born in Brinkley. And it's flat, 'cause we're on the delta, and you can see forever.

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

Mr. SUFJAN STEVENS: (Singing) In the delta sun, down in Arkansas, it's the great god bird in its altar call.

Ms. KEMMER: It's a place where you can find spiritual solace. We have so many churches.

Mr. GENE DePRIEST (Owner, Gene's Barbecue and Restaurant): I am Gene DePriest, the owner of Gene's Barbecue and Restaurant in Brinkley, Arkansas. I came to Brinkley in 1957. I was born and raised about 15 mile of here. It was, like, 5,200 population in Brinkley. It's down to 3,800 now, so it's a strictly farming community.

Ms. KEMMER: It's a place where you can call a wrong number and talk for five minutes.

Ms. PENNY CHILD(ph) (Owner and Operator, Penny's Family Hair Care): My name is Penny Child. I'm the owner and operator of Penny's Family Hair Care. We have a good little town. We have a good group of people. It's just our economy's not real good. You know, minimum wage jobs is what we mostly have.

Ms. KEMMER: We have lots of tree-lined streets.

Mayor BILLY CLAY (Brinkley, Arkansas): I'm Billy Clay, and I'm currently--they're letting me be mayor of Brinkley for a little while.

Ms. KEMMER: We have people that care about their community and about the children, which we really do feel are our future.

Mayor CLAY: We're coming up on graduation, and that is, to me, a very sad occasion, because we're exporting these young people out, because there's not anything really primarily to hold them. You know, some will go off to college, but they won't return.

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) On the great bayou where they saw it fall, it's the great god bird down in Arkansas.

Mr. GENE SPARLING (Saw Ivory-Billed Woodpecker): My name is Gene Sparling. I'm an amateur woodsman and a naturalist and adventurer from Arkansas, was kayaking through Bayou DeView in February of 2004 and was in a particularly ancient, primeval section of forest, came around a small bend, set my paddle down and was sitting back in my kayak, reveling in the peace and beauty and wonder of the place I was in. And a large bird flew into the channel and landed on a tree, and I thought to myself, `That looks like a woodpecker on steroids.'

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Newscaster): We learned today great comebacks are still possible in this great country, and this is a big one: the ivory-billed woodpecker last seen back in 1944 and thought to be extinct since then. It has been rediscovered in Arkansas. The bird once believed magical by Native Americans was spotted about a year ago...

Mr. SPARLING: Legend has it when people would see one, they would exclaim in shock, `Lord God, what a bird!'

(Soundbite of pecking; ivory-billed woodpecker)

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) ...and the sewing machine, the industrial god on the great bayou where they saw it fall, it's the great god bird down in Arkansas.

Unidentified Man #1: Hoo! Well, when I first heard that they had spotted it, of course, I was like everybody else, `You got to be kidding.' But I had been in the area where they found it, and I'm almost sure I've seen it before, but I didn't know what I was looking at, so, you know, it was one of those things that just looked like a small pterodactyl coming out of a tree to me.

Mr. CHUCK VOLNER(ph) (Resident, Brinkley): I'm Chuck Volner. I've been in Brinkley since 1946, and I was raised right within a mile of where they probably discovered this bird. A boy growing up, I wasn't really interested in looking for that bird. Back then, I was interested in catching me a crappie or a bass or catching me a coon or whatever it took to survive out in the swamp. And it's a beautiful place. I would spend a many happy hour out there.

Mr. BOYCE ALWIGHT (Chief, Brinkley Fire Department): My name is Boyce Alwight. I'm the fire chief of Brinkley Fire Department. I've seen some big woodpeckers back there, but I never knew that they had one extinct, you know, like this, so it's a good possibility, yes, I've seen the bird, just didn't realize it. But I mean, this is during deer season, so I'm concentrating on deer and wishing this woodpecker would go home.

Ms. CHILD: I really didn't know anything, like, about the Audubon Society or anything like that. I've never been into birds.

Unidentified Man #2: I thought woodpeckers was all woodpeckers.

Unidentified Man #3: Now if it was a new duck, that'd be the greatest thing in the world. Everybody in the world would be talking about this new species of duck. But, like, I say, this is a woodpecker, and people just weren't taking it, at first, to heart.

Unidentified Man #4: Truth was I was a little bit ticked off at first, you know, 'cause here I am, been out here fishing and hunting for some 40 years, and then all of a sudden, they say, `You can't set foot on this property.'

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #5: Wildlife officials also trying to protect the bird's habitat by closing 5,000 acres of popular fishing and hunting areas.

Unidentified Man #4: But, you know, after thinking about the bird and what it could do for this area, possibly bring into the economy, into this town and surrounding towns, sure, I'm for it. But if the bird-watchers can watch, the hunters ought to be able to hunt, and the fishermen ought to be able to fish. That's my opinion.

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) And the hunters beware. Oh, the fishers fall. And paradise might close from its safe flight ...(unintelligible). It's the great god bird through it all.

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you ready to order?

Unidentified Man #6: Let me have your rib special.

Unidentified Woman #1: Rib spe--you want it dry or with sauce?

Mr. DePRIEST: Welcome to Gene's Barbecue.

Unidentified Man #7: Home of the yellow-billed woodpecker.

Unidentified Man #8: No, it's...

Unidentified Man #7: Ivory. Ivory-billed.

Unidentified Man #8: Ivory-billed.

Unidentified Woman #1: Got the shirts in.

Mr. DePRIEST: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #1: I love them. Oh, I love that. That looks really good.

Mr. DePRIEST: Right on the front, it says `Gene's Barbecue and Restaurant.' The back says `Home of the ivory-billed burger. The bird is the word.'

Well, it's two big hamburger patties, two slices of mozzarella cheese, pepper, bacon and a sesame seed bun.

Ms. CHILD: Gene's had this ivory-billed cheeseburger. And we said, `Well, if they can have a cheeseburger, I can have a haircut.' Woodpecker haircut, $25. It'll come to a point at the top, fire-engine red. And then the back and sides are tight with black on that and then a little bit of white in the front, kind of cocking his nose a little bit, you know.

Unidentified Woman #2: You know, you got to realize we're here in the delta. We're right next door to the poorest county in the whole United States. And we have been wanting something, praying for an industry.

Unidentified Man #9: We're here on the Interstate, halfway between Memphis and Little Rock. And we are going to put skirts on our billboards: ivory-billed woodpecker, exit 216.

Mr. DOUG HUNT (Resident, Brinkley): My name is Doug Hunt. Some guy--I don't know who said this--said there'd be 3,000 people come from England out of the Audubon Society. Now those people got money.

Mr. RONNIE STEINBECK (Owner and Operator, Paradise Wings Hunting Lodge): I'm Ronnie Steinbeck, and I own and operate Paradise Wings Hunting Lodge, which I'm going to have to change to Paradise Wings Lodge. What I'm hoping to do is to do boat tours. It'll have to be small boats, and we'll have to be camouflaged and go in there just real quiet with trolling motors and ease through those trees and see if we can actually find him.

Unidentified Man #10: We have good duck hunting here. It's three months out of the year: November, December and January. It's real good, and then it fades out. But this birds thing is going to be good the year 'round, and my business has already improved, like, 20 percent. Everybody's enthused.

Unidentified Woman #3: We are just so excited. I get phone calls all day. `You know, I have an old pattern of a woodpecker, and I just might see if I can quilt something up like that.'

Ms. RITA CLEMENTS(ph) (Rita's Art): I draw my pattern out on the board, and then I just follow the lines.

(Soundbite of saw)

Ms. CLEMENTS: I'm Rita Clements, and I have Rita's Art. I have a shop, and that's basically what I've been working on is the woodpecker cutout.

Unidentified Woman #3: Here we have Rita Clements, wonderful artist. And here she is, just barely making it, thinking she's going to have to move down to Louisiana. Maybe she could sell more down there. Well, now she's not going to have to move. You know, she's going to be able to make a living.

Unidentified Man #11: What I'm really hoping for them to be able to do is find the nest and find where it's at, and then set up a video there at his nest, where someone that's just come off the interstate can just cruise on right over there to the convention center, go in. They got a big screen set up there where that you can see the woodpecker on his nest, doing what the woodpecker's doing. And that way, everybody in the whole public in the world, even though you haven't seen it for real, but you could actually say you actually seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Unidentified Woman #4: He is an important bird right now, very important bird. Like he's just been resurrected.

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

Ms. CHILD: The only other thing that stands out in my mind--I'm 41, I've been in Brinkley 22 years--is the tornado, and that just happened a few years ago, and that was an F4, and that was really bad. But we're just small, never going to get noticed or recognized for anything, and it's great.

Unidentified Woman #5: It's just natural that people want something good to happen, and so I have no problem with Gene marketing his hamburger and calling it an ivory-bill. It's a good sandwich, too. I think there could be a point where it might get a little crass or gaudy, but this is the United States of America. That was what makes us great, you know. And if it helps him give two more waitresses jobs here and they can pay taxes, you know, and they can go to Wal-Mart or they can go to the local Cottage Mall and buy something that they want, that's what we're all about. And free enterprise, oh, that's America. That's what makes us great.

Ms. CHILD: We've got to protect him for our kids. If he leaves, then all of this revenue and possibilities that we had will be gone. And that's what I've been telling people, `Love the bird, because I think we're going to love what he's going to do for our town.'

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) And the watchers beware lest they see it fall, and fairer days might land if at last it falls. And the sewing machine, the industrial god. And it's the great god bird with its altar call. Yes, it's the great god bird with its altar call. It's the great god bird through it all.

SIEGEL: "The Lord God Bird" was written and performed by Sufjan Stevens. Independent producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister spoke with residents of Brinkley, Arkansas.

NORRIS: Their story was produced by Long Haul Productions in association with Chicago Public Radio. Stevens' "The Lord God Bird" is available at npr.org as a special download.

(Soundbite of "The Lord God Bird")

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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