I’ve been up to say hello to the lapwings, again. There’s a breeding ground –fairly rare for Wales, I’ve been told – just a couple of miles north from here. I’m very fond of them, and I have to try and enjoy them while they’re around, because after all it’s only for a few short months. I love their erratic flappy, upside down sideways (presumably courtship showings off?) flights, and their little quirky curls as they strut in profile. When I get near them, though, they rise up in warning, in distraction, and then fly up really high above me. As high as larks?
I’ve no idea of course; I’m not a real ornithologist; so I don’t know how much ornithological truth there is in the chorus of Gallagher and Lyle’s beautiful song: ‘the sparrow sings, the sparrow flies/ With mighty wings he reaches/ As high as any other bird..’ but I can’t say I’m worried about the scientific veracity of this. I came across the song (and thank you, peewits, for bringing it to mind this morning!) as the B side of a much fluffier, more instantly accessible –and ultimately more forgettable –single by Mary Hopkin. I think it was called ‘Goodbye’, and having flipped it to its flip side, I’m not sure I ever flipped it back again, because this song ‘Sparrow’ was to my teenage self an intriguingly elliptical song with a gorgeous melody and an equally gorgeous romantic ‘feel’. And ‘feel’ was all, maybe, because back in 1969 (I’m guessing) I was no lyrical analyst –otherwise I might have been concerned about how flummoxing the total lyric is.
But the way it works, perhaps, is this –we ‘pick up’ on this phrase, and on that phrase (much like, now I think of it, sparrows in the garden today picking at the wispy tops of last year’s crop of –totally incongruous in this garden –tall rushes, and flying off hopefully to help give a nest a bit of a downier lining?)… I suspect the smell of freedom and independence was stirred by bits of the lyric – ‘I had to find it out my way/ They couldn’t stop me leaving…’; something romantic about the spare selection of muted imagery ..’a wealth of silence will descend upon the town/ in colours of the evening..’ and open ended ambiguity of the song’s conclusion ‘In the blue and hazy drift of after two, a saxophone is moaning./ I rise and step into the cool night air…’ There’s a whiff of detachment and wistfulness about the observations of the first verse too, observing a village held by its own routines (?) ‘ On Sunday morning everyone will leave the house, dressed for the Sunday service, /and through the streets I used to know, they go…’
But most of all that chorus speaks to something primal within us-the longing for (or the awareness of the unexpected possibility of) the apparently ‘small’ and insignificant to achieve inordinately beyond all expectations. We are talking Jack and the beanstalk, maybe, David and Goliath, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’, the little engine who could (‘ I think I can, I think I can…’) and perhaps even what we hear from Micah every advent – ‘out of you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small… Out of you will come…’ Well, you know who comes. And the biblical overtones here do not go unnoticed ‘…he shall inherit all the earth’ (like the meek, of course).
I’ve heard the composers singing it – they are/were(?) much undervalued and under-appreciated songsmiths, and their version of their own song is more than serviceable…but having heard Mary Hopkin’s interpretation… Well, it’s just drop dead beautiful, isn’t it? (And here’s a thought: having arrived at our aural doorsteps via Opportunity Knocks, how well would Ms Hopkin have fared in the X factor or Britain’s got talent? Just musing, idly.] And that extraordinary sweet voice: isn’t she a bit like ‘Eleanor [who] sings in the choir/ [and] it’s like a lark in summer’? The ‘production’ here might be seen as a bit overblown – the bells, the woodwind, the saxophone at the end, the ethereal ‘chorus’. Ah but I must confess I rather like it.