In praise of: ‘Sparrow’ Marvin Gaye (Here, My Dear, Tamla, 1978) plus ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’

Personnel: Vocals, keyboards and synthesizers Marvin Gaye, drums Bugsy Wilcox, percussion Elmira Collins, bass Frank Blair, guitar Wali Ali, trumpet Nolan Smith, tenor saxophone Charles Owens/ Fernando Harkness, alto saxophone (solo) by Ernie Fields

Something to value is an artwork, a song, a piece of music that expresses the spirit of an artist, while gesturing out in new and unexpected directions. ‘Sparrow’ from Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is the perfect example of this. Wiks suggests that the lyrics have a ‘poetic and religious tone’ to them, but what does this mean?

In 1968 Marvin Gaye covered ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ a gospel hymn, written by Civilla D. Martin with composer Charles H. Gabriel in 1905, see the description of how the song came about (which is kind of eccentric, stolen from Wik as always) 

Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheel-chair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.

This hymn has been covered by all the greats: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston and by Gladys Knight singing at the funeral of Michael Jackson. (What’s interesting is the way the piece of music resonated with artists from particular eras, with nine recordings in the 50s/60s, two in the 70s and 80s each, before experiencing a resurgence in the 90s, with seven artists putting out versions of the song). Here is Marvin Gaye's interpretation: 

‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ with its stirring music and final resolution, moves from the opening spirit of despondency to comfort, knowing that God is ever-present, ‘watching over’ the one who is lost. Quoting Marvin Gaye's lyrics:

Why should I feel so discouraged
I wanna know why should the shadow come
Oh tell me why why should I feel lonely, so lonely
And long for heaven and a home

Since Jesus is my portion
A constant friend he is
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me

I sing because I'm happy
And I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know Jesus watches me

Note how Marvin Gaye simplified and loosened up the original lyrics of the hymn, leaving out the more literary, but touching refrain: “Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears.’

Compare this then with 'Sparrow’ from the angry, sprawling and brilliant ‘divorce’ record from 1978. On one level, Gaye’s tone is tender, gentle as if addressing his lover in 'Sparrow' (his ‘sweet, itty, bitty, pretty bird.’ Even if in the same verse he refers to himself in the third person, ‘Sing to me, Marvin Gaye before you fly away ...’ thereby diluting the sentiment). 

As with any gospel song, 'Sparrow' begins with the expression of loss, difficult circumstances, the problem or obstacles faced by the artist:

I used to hear a sparrow singing, baby
Oh, but one day as I went along I didn't hear his song
But I know the sparrow should sing
Sing on such a morning in spring
Oh sparrow, why don't you sing?

Sing to me, oh, sparrow come around
Come around, why don't you come around?
Sing about melody, aww, melody
About the things you see
Anything you want to sing about
Just sing it on out now, sing it on out

Let the world know what life's all about
Sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing, little sparrow, sing
Oh sing, little sparrow, won't you sing for me?

This encourages us to think it could be about artistic inspiration, with Gaye feeling abandoned by his muse, but then the next verse flips this entirely. Distancing himself from the lyrical framework of gospel music Gaye does not place himself in the role of the abandoned (sparrow). The ‘sparrow’ is said to be his previous support, as he sings: ‘Every time I'm feeling low/I know I can always count on you/Sing, little sparrow/About the troubles you're in, places you've been/You can sing I know it, don't you try to pretend ...’

Taking it at face value, Gaye is singing to a sparrow (a lover) and this fits with one of the key tropes of popular music, from soul/R&B and pop music, the idealised (or real) vision of the lover who is forever true. Carried within this is the awareness that the expression of longing is what counts, the desire for the idealised love.

Yet the song’s true achievement (outside the extraordinary musicianship, take that as a given) lies in the way it changes lyrically/musically half-way through, following the lull in the bridge, when Gaye returns, just after 3’30.” Any and all of the previous gentleness is gone, ‘Sing to me ...’ Gaye begins with a tone that sounds more like a directive rather than an expression of affection or gratitude.

And what does Marvin Gaye want his ‘sparrow’ to sing of - the focus is light years away from gospel and indeed any kind of straightforward love song :

Sing to me about man's inhumanity
And all the injustice you see
Sing sparrow, sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing about what to give
Sing about about how to live
I want you to sing your tune sparrow
Oh, little sparrow, sing

Sing to me of jealousy
Aww, sing what that's all about
Sing it all out, shout, little sparrow
Aww, sing at me
Sing me a, sing me a song
I wanna know what's wrong, little bird, tell me
Aww, sparrow

Sing sparrow 'cause I wanna know
You sweet, itty, bitty, pretty bird
Sing before you go
Sing to me, Marvin Gaye before you fly away
Never stop singing sparrow till we hear your song

Sing your song
Sing your song
On and on and on and on
On and on and on and on and
I remember a bird