In the 1930s, Roy Acuff popularized the classic hymn “The Great Speckled Bird.”
It’s actually quite fascinating how Acuff ended up recording the song. At the time, the Tennessee native had just left the medicine show circuit and started playing at local shows with various musicians in the Knoxville area. He was starting to gain attention and was slowly becoming a household name.
But his journey to being a superstar picked up speed when he heard an obscure musical group called The Black Shirts singing much different lyrics but a similar traditional melody to the folk song “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” which became a hit for the Carter Family in 1929.
Roy Acuff was enamored by the song’s message and symbolism that he paid one of the group members a very hard-earned fifty cents to write down its lyrics. It was definitely the best half-dollar Acuff has ever spent. Within weeks, “The Great Speckled Bird” became Acuff and his band, the Crazy Tennesseans’ most requested piece.
In 1938, the group performed “The Great Speckled Bird” at Grand Ole Opry – and something incredible happened. The station has actually received an overflowing positive mail regarding Acuff’s performance. “In two weeks, they sent my mail. It came in bushel baskets,” Acuff recalled.
Soon enough, Acuff started a residency at the Opry.
Tracing The Classic Hymns’ Roots
“The Great Speckled Bird” is one of the many Roy Acuff songs that show a strong religious influence. Tracing its roots led to the religiously framed story in which the song was actually composed by a minister and evangelist named Guy Smith, who traveled throughout Springfield, Missouri. It was also discovered that the song’s distinct lyrics were actually inspired by the twelfth chapter, ninth verse of the book of Jeremiah.
Ever since Acuff recorded “The Great Speckled Bird,” it has been covered by various artists, including Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Marty Robbins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.
Make sure to listen to Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird” in the video below.