This classic gospel song that was written in the early 1900s has a simple yet surprising meaning behind it that can be a blessing to many.
Many sing this tune and realize the overall feeling of hope that the chord progressions and lyrics are bringing, but they miss some of the power in the lyrics.
Growing up, my friends and I, who were in the church choir, always thought there was some supernatural effect of God peering through a sparrow's point of view, which was then looking down at us to watch over us.
We probably watched too many fantasy movies.
Our church elders assured us we were wrong, but they didn't go into detail about why. I'm assuming it's because they didn't take the time to learn the true meaning behind the song, either.
While the meaning of this richly optimistic gospel staple may have been lost to those in my parents and their parents' generations, I've been able to do some research on the story and meaning behind the song to great success!
This is one of those songs that took the black Christian community by storm, but it was actually created by two white writers and published in 1905. Lyricist Civilla D. Martin and composer Charles H. Gabriel were both talented, although elusive, creative writers.
Civilla, a poet from Canada, traveled as a part of her ministry and created various hymns with her husband to uplift people across the world.
During one of her travels, she visited a sick and bedridden friend who miraculously was in good spirits despite her situation.
When Civilla D. Martin asked her friend why she was so positive about everything, her friend responded, "His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me."
Civilla later wrote about the experience, saying, "The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The song 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow' was the outcome of that experience."
There are rumors that she and her husband, Dr. Martin, attempted to put the poetry lyrics to a melody to create a full song, but were not able to capture the magic that the lyrics brought to the table.
Civilla and her husband then reached out to the composer and organist Charles H. Gabriel to create the melody, chord progression, and rhythmic flow behind the song.
Charles, who is said to have composed over 7,000 songs in his career, was very capable of the task.
There are at least two references to sparrows in the bible, where these birds are meant to symbolize something worth even less than a human life that God still tends after down to every small detail.
Matthew 10:29-31: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Psalm 32:8: "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"
The first verse and chorus of the song are as follows:
"Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for heaven, heaven, and home,
When, when Jesus is my portion,
My constant Friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches over me.
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
For His eye, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know, I know He watches over me."
The song is meant to give the listener confidence in the fact that God is watching over them and protecting them from the seemingly endless variety of troubles that we all face in everyday life.
In the case of Civilla's friend, she didn't let her illness make her feel like she couldn't make room for joy, happiness, and gratitude in her life.
In the case of the African American community in particular, you can see how the early 1900s was a time when the lyrics would hit them the hardest while they were facing racism and inequality on a daily basis.
American singer and actress Ethel Waters was one of the first popular singers to put this song on the map and turn this into a tune that was sung in many churches across the US. She also wrote an autobiography titled "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" in 1951.
In the summer of 1958, famous singer Mahalia Jackson put on a mesmerizing and rich performance of this song at the Newport Jazz Festival and later recorded a studio version for release as well.
In the 1990s, the movie "Sister Act 2", starring Whoopi Goldberg, sent the music world into a mini frenzy when singer/rapper Lauren Hill and Tanya Blount performed a heartfelt duet of this song in an early section of the movie.
Elite singer Whitney Houston recorded a version of this song for the soundtrack of the mobile "Sparkle", which was released in 2012. This was one of the last recordings made of her before her passing and a very powerful rendition of the hymn.
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