Hod Pharis recorded his tune in 1952, with Anne Little, on a 78-rpm recording for the Aragon label. The same year, Maine’s Harold Breau, as Hal Lone Pine, recorded it with his Sherbrooke, Quebec-born wife Betty Cody for RCA Victor in New York City as a 45. Their version quickly spread the song throughout Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.
However, it wasn’t until 1957 when I Heard the Bluebirds Sing reached mainstream success. The American country trio The Browns (Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie Brown) recorded it in Nashville’s RCA Victor studio the previous year (with the legendary Chet Atkins producing), with The Last Thing I Want on the B side of the 78 recording. Completing the Canadian connection, Jim Ed Brown (later a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the US Country Music Hall of Fame) had grown up listening to Hank Snow on Arkansas radio.
Maxine Brown reminisced in her memoirs, “I think The Last Thing I Want would have been a hit. But the other side was the one [I Heard the Bluebirds Sing] that went on to become a smash. . . . It jumped on the charts in September 1957 and soon outsold our earlier hits.” Although country music was under siege from rock and roll, with country charts listing hits by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Browns’ recording held strong at No. 20 on Billboard’s 1957 year-end country chart, after peaking at No. 1 on Cashbox and No. 4 on Billboard’s weekly country chart.
I Heard the Bluebirds Sing is a charming ballad told from the perspective of a happy older couple looking back on their courtship. The lyrics establish the rural location in the first line (“out in the hills”), perhaps Tennessee or the composer’s native Alberta. The line “married in the village church” completes the picture of small-town life, while the bluebirds (symbols of happiness) sing about the ups and downs of the courtship. The song is usually performed as a male-female duet with the woman singing an imitative echo effect, but it sometimes is sung as a solo with backup singers providing the woman’s responses.
After The Browns’ hit, several other successful covers followed: In 1963 “Wink” Martindale recorded a version on the Dot label, and two years later The Browns rereleased their version as the title song of an album. Next, I Heard the Bluebirds Sing was featured on Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge’s 1973 duet album “Full Moon” and the following year Grammy-winner Marty Robbins recorded it on his album “Good ’n Country,” which reached No. 7.
Now entrenched as a country standard, I Heard the Bluebirds Sing has been recorded by Bill Monroe (often referred to as “the father of bluegrass music”) and His Blue Grass Boys with Johnny Duncan; Ray St. Germain with Sherisse Lawrence; Buck Owens and Susan Raye; Jim and Jesse; John Herald and the Greenbriar Boys; Mike and Bob The Houle Brothers Four; the Bluegrass Ramblers; Sneezy Waters; April Verch; The Cantrells; and Motel Rodeo. Covers generally remain faithful to the old-time sound of The Browns’ recording; many versions include an instrumental break.
I Heard the Bluebirds Sing remains popular at country jamborees and folk festivals. It is known in the U.K. and Australia, has been translated into Inuktitut, and Garrison Keillor penned humorous new words about migrating Canada Geese. The Browns’ version is a favourite of country compilation albums.
Hod Pharis, an internationally known songwriter and Western balladeer, was born on September 3, 1929 and grew up on the farming community of Willow Valley, Alberta. He got his first guitar as a young boy and by the age of 11, he was much in demand and playing with local groups. In 1950, he moved to Calgary, appeared regularly on radio station CFCN, and travelled for three years throughout Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan with the Ray Little Radio Cowboy Show. While he was with Ray Little’s outfit, Hod appeared on stage with many iconic western performers, such as Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb. Hod struck up a friendship with Hank who sang many of Hod’s tunes including, I Heard the Bluebirds Sing and Call of the Mountain. Later, Hod joined the group of musicians, “The Willow Valley Boys;” and in 1955, he became part of Calgary’s police force, walking a beat for two years and then moving to the motorcycle division of the traffic department.
Hod Pharis was also a well-known disc jockey on Calgary radio from the 1950s through the 1970s and later in British Columbia. His final performance was to raise funds to help the children in Mexico who were struggling to survive in the aftermath of the earthquakes in 2000. “I can’t think of a more befitting final curtain for Hod Pharis” said his widow, Linda Pharis. Hod died on February 12, 2001 at age 72.