His Eye Is On The Sparrow: a Book, a Song, the Oscars
My memoir, His Eye is On the Sparrow takes its title from the song my father-in-law sang the weekend I met him. His gravelly rendition was always my favorite version of this song, in its simple A Cappella. Papa sang it straight out with the vigor of a man who worked all his life and who deeply believed the lyrics: I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the Sparrow, I know he watches me. He expressed the joy in his life, as well as a deep spirituality that in a world of terrible sorrow and injustice a blessed God comforts us. He lived a full, rich life with pride and self respect in spite of the racism and Jim Crow that shadowed most his life. The song also speaks to the importance of each of us as we overcome discouragement and injustice to celebrate freedom and joy. I tried to capture this in the scene I related in my book, His Eye is On the Sparrow.
Last summer, when I saw the film 20 Feet From Stardom, some of the same elements were present. Great music. Wonderful people. Enormous talent that never quite achieves the recognition and acclaim it deserves. Heart wrenching stories. History. Love and tragedy. I loved it, told everyone I knew about it, and downloaded the songs of the singers spending much of the summer singing, in my off key but enthusiastic voice, Darlene Love’s Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
Yes, I identified with the theme of the documentary: Immensely gifted, hard working artists struggling to make it big—or at least supporting themselves—in an art. Talent is there, no less than the superstars, and so is the drastic hard work. What makes the difference? Why are not Darlene Love, Merry Clayton or Lisa Fischer as successful as Diana Ross, Bonnie Raitt, Anita Baker? If talent and hard work and passion don’t make the difference, what does? This is certainly true for all the arts. I think about this when I read a great novel that never achieves the praise or sales that it deserves.
So, what’s the answer? Being in the right place at the right time. Astute management. An X factor, which coincides with what the public wants at that moment. Timing, as every singer and writer knows, is everything. Would Bob Dylan have been as acclaimed if he’d been born 10 years earlier (his voice too funky and his lyrics too radical) or later when the moment had passed? Talent and hard work are necessity, the circumstance of fitting in a smidgeon ahead of your culture is more luck, I suspect, than planning or foresight.
But it an way, a larger way, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of applause and success, they couldn’t help singing anymore than I could ever help writing.
So when Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was thrilled. When 20 Feet From Stardom was nominated for the Oscar, I was thrilled. She and her compatriots were finally being recognized.
Meanwhile, Shebooks published my memoir, His Eye is On the Sparrow. I was reminded of the lyrics of the song and its popularity when my Google alerts sent me listing of mentions, not only to my book, but also to the song.
Few months later, Darlene Love accepted the Oscar. She won great fame after years of ignominy, and did her thing at the Oscars, belting out a gospel song with lyrics of freedom and happiness. As she sang this song—my Papa’s favorite, the title of my book, joy streamed down my cheeks, for her, for me, for the win of an artist who had too long been overlooked. What better way to thank the world for coming her way? And she sang for all of us.
For all of us creators, — writers, musicians, artists, –no matter how famous we become, we contribute to our art. We do it because we love it, because we must. We can’t stop. I can’t stop writing. Darlene can’t stop singing. Artists keep painting and sculpting. We do it because that’s who we are, that’s how we breathe. And, regardless of our acclaim, we contribute to the art of our culture. Just like the sparrow, our voice becomes part of the great song.