Fables are teaching tools. This one, like Aesop's, features talking animals. Like the Grimms', it contains a lesson about cruel selfishness. And like Andersen's, it concludes with a religious note.
Simon attacks three kinds of selfishness in this song. The first is that of the oak tree. For free, the tree could provide a place for a weary sparrow's nest. The tree is not being asked to provide the twigs for this nest, just enough room for one. And not even much room-- this is a tiny sparrow, after all.
The tree refuses, even while acknowledging that the sparrow is indeed "cold" and that its own "leaves" could "warm" the bird. The only implied reason is that the sparrow is unworthy of the tree: "I won't share my branches with no sparrow's nest." The ungrammatical "no" reads as "no mere" sparrow's nest. If it were a more substantive bird, say a peacock, that happened to be down on its luck, then maybe. But the welcome mat is rolled up if a pathetic little sparrow knocks.
(Aside from shelter, one needs food, and one would think that the sparrow would seek a few grains of "wheat" next. Were I to edit the song, I would switch the second and third verses. I would say that that a refusal of shelter, then a refusal of food, then a refusal of even a "kindly word," which would cost nothing at all, would be the last nail in the coffin-- how could a creature live without even someone acknowledging its misfortune? Simon instead, feels that the logical order is: shelter, then commiseration, then food: Not even food-- well, then forget it. That said, we will take the verses as they are presented.)
Next, the swan refuses a "kindly word" to the sparrow. The excuse is that he would devalue his own social currency by exchanging words with the (again, mere) sparrow: "I'd be laughed at and scorned if the other swans heard."
Lastly, the "wheat" refuses to help. Its defence is simply self-interest: "I need all my grain to prosper and grow." As if a few grains in a sparrow's stomach would make a difference in the grand scheme. At least the thought of charity did occur to the wheat, "I would if I could."
And now, homeless (compare to Bleeker Street), friendless, and starving, the sparrow dies. Only now that it is too late does someone consider helping the wretched thing. But by now, the assumption is that the sparrow will be abandoned yet again; the question changes from "And who will...?" to "Will no one...?"
The Earth replies that it will eulogize the sparrow and provide it a grave. The Earth is used as a metaphor for God: "For all I've created..." The Earth creates nothing-- in fact, it is a creation, of God's. It is disingenuous-- and out of context with the religiosity of the rest of the album-- to think that Simon is implying that Earth is a god along the lines of say, Gaia. Rather, the most logical assumption is that the "Earth" stands for God, who evoked the first living beings from dust, engendering the expression "Dust to dust."
What does the fable of the sparrow teach? What is, as Aesop would say, "the moral of the story"?
Is it: "Fret not-- while God's creations may be lacking in generosity, in the end God will provide a final kindness"?
Or is it: "God's creations refuse kindness because they feel superior, while God Himself does provide kindness because He is superior." Being kinder is being better; how "good" you are depends not on how much you have, but how much you give of what you have.
The lesson is clear: No excuse to refuse help holds water. You, the listener, could provide a "blanket," a "kindly word" to a needy, homeless person. You think it will soil your reputation to truck with the poor? Why, does God's reputation suffer when He does? Are you better than God, to worry about your good standing so? And yes, you could "prosper and grow" and still spare enough grains to feed a mere sparrow.
On an artistic note, while the song befits its time and place (and album), it rings a tad preachy now. On the other hand, the other religious songs on the album do not have a social message. How nice would it be if organized religion cared about helping the poor... in addition to what it does.
It would be an interesting exercise to compare this song with the hymn that may have inspired it, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," itself a possible reference to Psalm 84:3, which reads: "Yea, the sparrow hath found a house... thine altars, O Lord" (KJV).
Next song: The Sound of Silence