“Feed The Birds”, from the Disney movie ‘Mary Poppins’, is the song, probably more than any other, which makes grown men spontaneously burst into tears for no apparent reason.
I don’t mind admitting I’m one of them.
“Feed The Birds” might well be the saddest song ever written…incredibly fragile and beautiful, but unremittingly sad…even though a quick scan of the lyrics wouldn’t make you think it was likely to have that effect.
That’s largely due to the songwriting skills of Robert and Richard Sherman, the names behind many of the most famous songs from Disney movies.
They had a great musical pedigree. Their grandfather was a violinist and their father a successful Tin Pan Alley songwriter in the 1920s and 30s. However, half-jokingly, it’s said that Al Sherman’s greatest musical accomplishment was fathering Robert and Richard Sherman, who would go on to write so many wonderful songs.
In addition to ‘Mary Poppins’, the Sherman Brothers (as they were usually referred to) wrote the scores for ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, ‘ The Jungle Book’ (with the exception of the “Bare Necessities” song) ‘The Aristocats’ and many other popular films over their long careers in Hollywood.
Their songwriting track record is second to none, but everything the Sherman Brothers knew about writing a song came together in “Feed The Birds”. All the stars were in alignment the day they sat down at the piano to write that song.
Normally, I like sad songs because the lyrics tend to be more eloquent than in happy songs. You can shed a tear, creatively speaking, in many more ways than you can laugh, it seems.
The devil might have all the best tunes, as Salvation Army founder William Booth said, but I tend to find sad songs have all the best lyrics.
So why does “Feed The Birds” reduce so many people to spontaneous floods of tears?
Unlike most of the greatest sad songs you might think of, the lyrics are very simple, and on the surface tell a pretty matter-of-fact story…
Early each day to the steps of St Paul’s
The little old bird woman comes
In her own special way to the people
She calls, “Come, buy my bags full of crumbs”
This beggar woman, clearly living in straightened circumstances herself, puts her energies into making sure the birds are well-fed before she takes care of her own needs.
I imagine she was rejected or ignored a lot more often than she sold a bag of breadcrumbs, but she kept going anyway. This old women showed a level of determination most people would have baulked at, in pursuit of what she saw as a worthy goal.
That’s the first element which makes “Feed The Birds” such a sad song.
On the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the finest places of worship in England, designed by one of the country’s greatest architects, Sir Christopher Wren, poverty existed cheek by jowl with great wealth in the story of ‘Mary Poppins’.
St Paul’s Cathedral isn’t a place for the working classes. Then, as now, it’s for the fanciest members of London’s high society.
The wealthy people brushing past the old woman could buy every bag of breadcrumbs she had to sell without affecting their lifestyles in the slightest. Yet their concerns for themselves outweighed any feelings they might have had for an old beggar-woman and the birds around her.
There’s an unspoken parallel with the biblical tale of the widow who gave more than all the rich men because she gave the church everything she had.
That’s kind of the point ‘Mary Poppins’ makes too.
The children’s bank manager father focuses on himself and his needs. He has no time for compassion or charity, not with his own children and certainly not with some old beggar-woman who sells bird food near St Paul’s Cathedral who he passes on the daily journey to his office.
As the Sherman Brothers point out in “Feed The Birds”, it doesn’t take much to make a difference. A smile, an acknowledgement from a fellow human being, a handful of coins is all it takes to make a difference to someone’s life.
In fact, compared to how little of our time, effort and energy to make an impact, “Feed The Birds” makes us to think about our own priorities in life.
Whatever problems you’ve got, if you’re living in a modern Western democracy, you’re likely to be materially better off than 90% of the world’s population.
So would a moment of your time, or a few pennies that you wouldn’t miss, really make such a big difference to you?
You could spend a few minutes on Instgram or the same amount of time saying hello to a fellow human being, looking them in the eye, letting them know they matter to another member of the human race.
You never know when the smallest, most fleeting of acknowledgements can make all the difference…
Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Tuppence is what we used to call a two penny piece, back when that was a standard coin in the UK. For a well-to-do bank manager with servants and nannies like Mary Poppins, it would have been a tiny ask.
But the key here is that not only are you helping the birds survive, you’ll also feel good about doing so yourself.
That’s the funny thing about good deeds. You give your time or your money to someone else, and don’t expect to get it back again. And yet it makes you feel good to make a positive impact, however modest, in the world.
Of course, the recipient feels better too. They’re grateful and appreciative. But the real winner in this is you. You give yourself a priceless gift every time you help another human being.
Yet so often we deny ourselves that gift by being too wrapped up in our own world, allowing our own internal monologue to dominate our thoughts, our own troubles to crowd out our concern for the greater troubles of others.
When you think about it, regularly denying ourselves the opportunity to feel better about the world and our place in it seems a little odd. But that’s what nearly all of us, myself included, do for large chunks of our time.
All it takes is tuppence…figuratively speaking, nothing of any consequence. But we’d rather not. We’ve got other things on our mind.
Now, it strikes me that we’ve got this far through an article about “Feed The Birds” and I haven’t yet mentioned Julie Andrews’ exceptional performance in one of her most iconic roles.
Julie Andrews only got to star in ‘Mary Poppins’ after studio boss Jack Warner refused to release her to play Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’ — that role went to the equally delightful Audrey Hepburn instead.
So, when the offer for ‘Mary Poppins’ came along, Julie Andrews wasn’t fully committed already and was able to take the role that would make her name.
Despite the many other skills Audrey Hepburn brought to the silver screen, one attribute she didn’t possess was a great singing voice. By contrast, Julie Andrews has, without doubt, one of the finest voices ever to enter a recording studio.
The key to powerful emotions she conveys in “Feed The Birds” is how restrained she is. Julie Andrew’s voice is as clear as the finest crystal, her diction immaculate, her tone perfect.
But “Feed The Birds” is not a “Let It Go”-style spectacular performance. It’s quite the opposite.
Julie Andrews sings “Feed The Birds” as a lullaby to the children in her care as they’re going to sleep, and you really feel that quality in her vocal.
She’s not going to belt it out and risk waking up the children. And that lullaby style gives “Feed The Birds” a pensive, reflective,almost melancholy quality that only ratchets up the already considerable power of the Sherman Brothers’ writing.
Then, just as we wonder where this song is going, the Sherman Brothers change tack.
Julie Andrews’ voice remains understated, but underneath the vocal the strings step it up a notch and a choir appears. Together they bring an almost spiritual quality to the song at just the right point. If you’re not crying already, the tears usually start to flow as the choir joins in…
All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles
Looks down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares
That’s what makes us feel good inside. When we show kindness towards another human being…the saints and apostles smile down on us.
Whether we have faith or not, whenever we help another human being the universe sends us a message we can feel inside, a message of love, acceptance and appreciation.
Which, after all, is what we’re all searching for in this life anyway. Love, acceptance and appreciation.
Often we think love, acceptance and appreciation is something we have to get from other people. But we couldn’t be further from the truth.
As the Sherman Brothers point out, we can do this all ourselves. We can create a feeling of love, acceptance and appreciation for ourselves any time we want. All it takes is tuppence.
Tuppence a bag…doing the smallest act of kindness for another human being. That’s what the universe picks up on. And the reward for our kindness is the opportunity to experience the feeling of love, acceptance and appreciation we’re all desperate for.
Given how powerful that sensation is, it’s surprising how much of the average person’s time is devoted to looking after themselves, if not to the detriment of others…although there are some world-class experts in that…at least in the face of the indifference we’ve cultivated to the suffering of others.
This message is what makes “Feed The Birds” such a surprisingly emotional song. The Sherman Brothers haven’t written it for our ears, they’ve written it for our souls.
“Feed The Birds” makes us sad because the Sherman Brothers’ analogy makes us think of all the times we haven’t extended the hand of friendship to others who needed it, even we would have suffered no great detriment in making a positive difference to the life of another human being.
In the seemingly-innocuous story of an old beggar-woman, the Sherman Brothers bring us face-to-face with our own humanity.
They connect with our deepest thoughts, somehow, and make us think of the times our own humanity has fallen short of what we’d like to think our standards are.
By this point, our heartstrings are being pulled in a different emotional direction at the same time.
Although we tend not to acknowledge it publicly, we’ve all been where that beggar-woman is.
Metaphorically, at least, we all know what it feels like when people brush past us as if we weren’t there. When nobody is prepared to meet our gaze for long enough to say “I see you”. When we’re asking for so little, but nobody wants to help.
That’s the genius of the Sherman Brothers.
They take us on an emotional roller coaster using the story of an unlikely hero and the most unlikely set of circumstances to make us confront our own humanity.
When we listen to “Feed The Birds”, our tears aren’t for others. They’re for ourselves.
Our tears are for the humanity we remember from our childhood, but it’s a humanity we lost somewhere along the journey of life.
Our tears are for what we realise we’ve become if we can’t muster even the smallest of gestures to help another person who needs us.
Especially when it takes so little…just tuppence a bag…
Here’s Julie Andrews with her performance of a lifetime in quite possibly the saddest song ever sung…the Sherman Brothers’ compelling and surprisingly emotional “Feed The Birds”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6Rv7uhIfKl6lKZ4CKKoAo5