Mary Hopkin’s ‘Sparrow’ is an unusual inhabitant of my Goosebumps playlist because I heard it for the first time in Autumn 2022. It is not one of those songs that has thousands of associated memories to machete through to get to what the song would say if first heard today. That is itself surprising. ‘Sparrow’ is a song that was released on The Beatles’ Apple Records. I first dived into the Beatles in 1987 and I have read tons of books about them, including books about Apple Records, all of which feature Mary Hopkin as she was the first artist other than The Beatles to release on The Beatles’ own record label. Maybe this illustrates something pretty obvious that I only realised here when coming to the end of the piece, which is that music was not always as immediately universally accessible as it is now and your 1960s kitchen might sometimes need to be silent.
Hopkin’s first single on Apple was ‘Those Were The Days’, with a B-Side of Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’. That number one single was produced by Paul McCartney in 1968, when he didn’t have much else on except releasing The White Album, prepping Let It Be and Abbey Road, trying to figure out how to keep The Beatles going, and falling in permanent love with Linda. Mary Hopkin’s second single had a McCartney song, ‘Goodbye’, on the A-Side and ‘Sparrow’, written by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, who Mary Hopkin praises highly to this day, on the B-Side. The Apple release schedule around the time Hopkin was releasing these songs included ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Get Back’, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, and ‘Something/Come Together’. Late brilliant Beatles if poignant because we all know what happened next. The Clash told us quite a while ago that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust but still: that is quite the environment to be mixing in.
How I encountered Mary Hopkin’s ‘Sparrow’ was that in September I tweeted about bird songs. I have another Tidal playlist called ‘Tern! Tern! Tern!’, which is an amusing (chortle) play on Byrds words. I was looking to replenish the playlist. It opens with the Byrds version of this song by Pete Seeger and then the second song is ‘I Like Birds’ by Eels, because I am quite a concrete thinker. As it happens, the title is also a play on Hopkin words given that ‘Turn! Turn’ Turn!’ was one side of her first single. I did not know this until literally today, December 21st 2022: lifelong learning! One reason I was tinkering then was because Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which provides ‘Turn! ‘Turn! Turn’ with its lyrics, was a reading at my mum’s funeral in June: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven / A time to be born, and a time to die”.
I asked Twitter friends to send me songs about birds for this playlist and lots of people did. Much to my surprise, Mary Hopkin was a respondent. Even more surprising that I didn’t know the song given that I instantly knew who she was, knew that she was a central person in the Beatles’ Apple Records and have been a tad on the Beatles obsessional side for two-thirds of my life. It quickly turned out to be—let me see what I said in October—dizzyingly beautiful. ‘Sparrow’ came out as a single B-side and was not on Hopkin’s 1969 album Post Card, which seems bananas, but no more so than ‘Penny Lane’ not making it to a proper Beatles album. I guess The Beatles were like: we’ll have another one in the morning. ‘Yesterday’ arrived in a dream.
So this is a song from a period and place that I love, non-revolutionarily—Beatles London in the late 1960s. Apparently some of the work was done in Paul McCartney’s house on Cavendish Avenue, to which, as a forty-five year-old, I walked miles in pilgrimage to stand outside, pausing en route outside Abbey Road. But that is not what draws me to this song or to any of the Beatles songs done since he moved in there in 1965. Equally, there is relatively little connection via autobiographical memory to this song. Not none, but I only just heard it. That feels freeing: it’s the song not so much the associations. Although it has to be a little bit of those.
One key thing is that this is a song about the glory of little flying things, a subject on which I support the song. The most normal of flying things, if any can be normal. Since the start of the pandemic I’ve become more attuned to and invested in birds. I live in the country in Kildare, we have a few fruit trees and hedges with berries around the house, and we would always have robins, blackbirds, magpies, tits and sparrows flittering around. When I had to work including conducting clinics from home from March 2020 for some reason I decided to stock up on feeders and seed including nyjer, which attracts the brighter finches, the gold and green ones and the punk-pink redpolls. I saw goldfinches far from the house and given their then-rarity and obvious beauty I wanted them nearer, and they are now. Our local nyjer supplier likes me, I think.
I saw so many sparrows that spring! To the point that I under-rated them. I would be disappointed by the sight of a sparrow as much as by the sight of a crow. With crows you might think you have seen a buzzard and crows are equally graceful in flight, but then when you see it’s a crow you are disappointed. This is not fair. What did the crow do wrong? Similarly in spring 2020 I would think I’d seen something like a dunnock, redpoll or wren, but it would turn out to be a sparrow and I’d be like not another one.
As Hopkin, Gallagher and Lyle point out, this is completely missing the point. Their point is that although just brown, black and grey, and as common as muck, building nests from gutters all over England, the sparrow is a glorious creature. Hearing ‘Sparrow’ makes me like Sparklehorse’s ‘Hundreds of Sparrows’, a song I’ve played hundreds of times, a bit less. Why is each sparrow worth so little? Who is devaluing and misvaluing? Beings and phenomena and experiences do not have to be kaleidoscopic or rare to be precious. Experiences like hearing a sparrow sing, watching a leaf fall and land, or holding your son’s hand are at least equal. The clear reminder that Mary Hopkin provides of this in ‘Sparrow’ is maybe why I love this song the most.
‘Sparrow’ opens with a quick church bell and with the song’s protagonist setting the scene: “On Sunday morning everyone will leave the house / Dressed for the Sunday service”. The music in the church itself sounds good and it sounds like the singer needs it: “When Eleanor sings in the choir / It’s like a lark in summer”. The protagonist goes directly from this comparison to her praise of the sparrow, generally considered less lofty than a lark: think of ‘The Lark In The Clear Air’ or Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. She follows by appreciating the song and motion of the oft-ignored bird: “The sparrow sings, the sparrow flies / With mighty wings he reaches / As high as any other bird / He shall inherit all the earth”. She sings this twice. There is choral accompaniment emphasising what she says. The choral accompaniment heightens for the second chorus, to press home her love of this bird that R.E.M. might, if they paid attention, call the king of birds.
Something fascinating about ‘Sparrow’ that I am mostly noticing as I listen to it and read the words while writing this essay is that the song’s protagonist needs the song of the sparrow. It is as if the music of nature keeps us going—some of us at least—and it is because there are times that we lack that music that we made the man-made kind. She follows the first chorus with uneasiness about the silence of the evening; forgive me if right here I think of the night-time bird-song silence in The Beatles’ 1968 ‘Blackbird’ being broken only by the forlorn male looking for a mate with no hope of finding one.
In the second verse, Hopkin sings “A wealth of silence will descend upon the town / In colours of the evening / The thought has troubled me before / I know alone I need a sound to fill each moment / I had to find it out my way / They couldn’t stop me leaving”. The sounds in this village, though glorious, are not quite enough to keep someone who needs to be immersed in music at all times. I have to say—this all sounds familiar given the length of Goosebumps playlist, the songs on which that I heard first, thirty-five years ago, are Beatles songs that were in the air in Abbey Road and Apple fifty-five years ago when Mary Hopkin was in those places.
‘Sparrow’ ends surprisingly and, I think, amazingly. The day starts on Sunday at church and amidst nature. A grounding time and solid places. Then the protagonist moves towards evening and misses the morning singing so takes steps to retrieve her intimacy with music. There is no choral accompaniment or religious grandeur to the final verse, which ends on a note of uncertainty, which can also be taken as excitement: what’s next? The protagonist is young, I think. I don’t like equating characters in songs with their performers but it sounds like its protagonist is a woman of twenty-ish who is deciding on her future. She is stretching out and moving away from home because there is not enough music around. She needs music to live so she needs to leave.
I listen to this today and think: well this was 1968. You could not just reach over in a village amidst making a lentil pasta sauce and put on, as I’ve just done, a song from twenty-three years earlier that you suddenly acutely needed to hear. When you need music to survive, you go where you will find it. Sometimes that is the source of the sound of a lark, in a church or ascending from a field. Sometimes in summer it is hedges where sparrows reside. Sometimes, though, it is not those. As the final verse reminds us, humans, despite our faults, are not all bad, because we create music when and where other creatures will not. So the protagonist ends the songs away from the village, stepping into a new life replete with music and possibilities: “Through the blue and hazy drift of after two / A saxophone is moaning / I rise and step into the cool night air”.