Indirectly Feeding the Birds

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One of the highlights of last weekend’s BABS Convention, for me, was hearing Cottontown Chorus premiere four arrangements I had done for them based on the music from Mary Poppins. The big song-and-dance numbers were of course a wonderful arranging challenge, but it’s their ballad, ‘Feed the Birds’, I’d like to talk about today. I found it a fascinating song to arrange because it is so emotionally rich in effect, though its most memorable lyrics are utterly mundane. It is a wonderful case study in indirectness of expression, of how to evoke a deep emotional response without ever really stating in the lyric why anyone should care.

Consider the following lyrics:

‘I see you walk away; all I can do is cry’

‘Tell me, who’ll take my place when I’m gone?’

‘Feed the birds, tuppence a bag’

All three are words taken from the climax points of famous ballads. The first two, though, are direct – you can read the lyrics and they tell you the source of your sympathetic response. The third one isn’t – you can’t explain why people start filling up at this point in the song by overt lyrical content.

So, what is the source of our response?

First, there is the emotional structure of the song’s premise. It tells the story of an old woman who spends her days invoking our sympathy for the birds. She’s poor – it’s not precisely a lucrative way of life – but she draws our attention to the birds’ needs rather than her own. She tells us that their young are hungry, their nests bare, and that we can help if we only commit tuppence to help them. But of course, it is she who needs our tuppences to feed her own family. And whilst her commodity (what she sells) may be crumbs, her product (what we buy) is the opportunity to feel good about ourselves for our kindness.

So this is not about the birds (though it might be about the tuppences) – it is a human drama. But it relies our on emotional focus being projected onto the birds if it is to work – if she asked for money for herself, we would feel very differently about the whole transaction.

Second, the lyric is full of wider resonances that engage our emotions, though again indirectly. The intertwined themes of the birds in the air, of charity and kindness, and care for the poor taps into the rhetoric of Sermon on the Mount. That the drama is located on the steps of St Paul’s adds to this religious connotation, and the imagined approval of the statues of saints in the bridge secures this moral dimension. When in the final section the song’s narrator commands, ‘Listen, listen, she’s calling to you,’ the message we are being asked to hear is not just ‘feed the birds’ but ‘remember your moral responsibility as a good person to help those less fortunate that yourself’.

And of course the role in the movie gives the whole song an extra emotional significance. Now, I hadn’t seen the movie since my age had reached double figures before I watched it in preparation for producing Cottontown’s arrangements. But I had retained the sense that this song mattered somehow more than most. Having reacquainted myself with it, I now understand why.

If you can’t remember much of the plot of Mary Poppins, it’s because not an awful lot happens. There’s a flurry of activity at the start when the old nanny leaves and they get Mary instead. Then there’s mostly a lot of entertaining song and dance routines without much by way of drama. But this song precipitates the film’s one major crisis.

It is introduced as a lullaby as Mary puts the children to bed. Then, the next day, the children see the birdwoman on the way to visit their father’s bank, and this opens up the film’s primary conflict – between the little boy’s desire to spend his tuppence on bird-food and his father’s insistence that he deposit it in a bank. This conflict ends up precipitating a run on the bank (which was completely lost on me as a child, but which I now understand having lived through 2008) and the father’s consequent dismissal.

So, what starts out sounding just like a lullaby ends up representing the primary conflict of values that drives the entire plot (such as it is). And as the memory of the film fades over time, the details of the plot evaporate, but the melody of this song can still trigger a response to the engagement we felt while living through the movie.

Now, the implications of all this for performing the song are that it doesn’t respond well to being nailed. You can’t do stuff to it to amplify the emotion. (Actually, this was the challenge in arranging it too – I spent a lot of my polishing time removing embellishments that were getting in the way of the song.) Rather, it simply needs to be beautiful. Sing the song with love and kindness, and give your listeners space to have their own responses. You can’t make anyone cry with it, but you can create a world in which they may well feel the need to.

In addition to singing at the highest level, our primary goal was to sing this song with artistry and heart-felt emotion.
A wonderful musical and artistic analysis of the song's underpinnings. Thanks for providing an insight into the magic entwined in your [winning] arrangement, which I hope you feel we did you proud.

Hi Liz,
I've been following your blog intermittently since meeting you in Oberwesel, but I'm contacting you now because you mention that you've arranged "Feed the Birds". My chorus, Women in Black (Berlin) is looking at the Tom Gentry arrangement, but we're afraid it may be too long for our contest set. We'd love to have a look at yours for comparison. How can we order a sample copy from you?
Susan Richter

Hi Susan, lovely to hear from you
I'm afraid I don't send out copies without a licence already in place (background explained under 'Previous Commissions') but a lot of the information you need is available here:

In particular, vocal ranges in the men's key - assume transposition up a 4th or 5th and see how it fits on your chorus's voices - and a video of the song in performance so you can both judge its length and see overall whether you like it.

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