Tuesday, September 22, 2009


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


  1. One of my favorites. So sweet, so sad. I love the change of tone when the Earth addresses the Sparrow's death.

  2. Agreed. In two words, "I will," the Earth implies not only that it will bury the sparrow, but-- with the emphasis on "I"-- adds that the others should be ashamed that he must offer this service only since they have failed at theirs. "I," not you.

  3. My favourite song. I really like your blog. Do you happen to know which songbook contains this song with its complicated guitar fingerpicking? You have enough articles to start advertising Paul Simon music, instruments and music lessons etc if you wished to finance your research efforts. Keep up your good work.

  4. Thank you! As I mentioned, I am not a musician, However, there are many excellent volumes of Simon & Garfunkel sheet music. I am sure you can find one on Amazon, eBAy, etc. The webpage with that songbook should list the songs contained in the book itself. Good luck, and thanks for keeping S&G's music alive.

  5. Hey Paul,

    Did you know that, in a letter to Paul Simon written by Art Garfunkel (on the cover of the cover of the original album), it stated that "The clarity of the song's structure is matched by the simplicity of its subject. The song is asking: "Who will love?" Poetic personification is used for the answers: Greed ("the oak tree"), Vanity ("the swan") and Hypocrisy ("the wheat")." I did'nt see this in your analysation, so I wonderd if you knew about this explanation at all.

    Greetings from the Netherlands,

  6. Harm-- I wish I knew the proper Dutch response! I have the LP versions of all the S&G material and I know I read the letter when I listened to the album, although I admit I did not think to consult it when analyzing the songs therein. I will say that what is there is Art's interpretation, but that the "oak" is not the classical symbol of greed, but strength (or, when compared to the reed, self-endangering stubbornness), the "swan" of beauty, and the "wheat" of sustaining sustenance. How they are used in heraldry may be different again. The fact that they are used here to symbolize other things is true, but these are one-time personifications. In my view, all three represent degrees of selfishness.

  7. There's another clear Biblical reference by making the bird a sparrow, from Jesus's teaching:

    Matthew 10:28-30 (ESV): "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered."

    It's a poignant teaching about the value of every human life to God and the place of each in his plan. S&G are poking at our blindness to this in our prejudice and arrogance, I think.

  8. Anon-- Thanks for the information. I agree that scolding society for the abandonment of the weakest among us, who are still human after all, is the core message of the song.
    But I wonder that sparrows could be bought. Not that one can easily catch one oneself, but once you bought one... what would you do with it? Keep it as a pet? They are so tiny, they can't possibly have much meat on them...

  9. Wow. I can't believe all these interpretations that are so poetic. As a child of the 60s, I seem to recall that we understood this to be a reaction to the starving in Africa. The starving sparrow coming from the Biafran children who were being left to die, and no country wanted to do anything about it. Not USA (the oak tree) not the USSR (the wheat) and not Asia (the swan). I may have the continents mixed up there. However, the earth replied with a caption that the solution was they would die and the earth would take them because after all, they are dust and mean nothing, or so the parable goes. It is a protest song, as so many were in the 60s and 70s.

  10. Shuzbert: Thanks for your comment. It is entirely possible that the issue of African starvation was the spark for the song, and that Simon used the sparrow image already part of Western symbolism to help the so-called "First World" relate. In doing so, Simon speaks of all poverty, around the world and even around the corner.
    As far as which other nations are meant, I don't know that the Biafrans or other Africans "travelled far" in the sense of trying to gain refuge or asylum in another country. "Who will feed" them is the major concern, much more so than a kindly word."
    But yes, the Earth-- standing for God and/or Nature-- will take them after all others have rebuffed them.
    While Simon crafted many timeless songs, he was like all artists a figure of his time, and you are right that we should not forget that.