Song 344: Julie Andrews, “Feed the Birds” (1964)Posted: December 10, 2013
I have unconditional love for Mary Poppins, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. I grew up loving it, even the boring parts near the end when Dick Van Dyke puts on old man makeup for some plotline about financial solvency. In fact, the thing has other flaws—Van Dyke’s accent, for one—but it’s also a beautiful piece of art. And that is largely because of its music.
A movie about the Mary Poppins songwriters, brother Richard and Robert Sherman, is about to be released. It’s a Disney movie, so it’s not exactly coming from an unbiased source (which apparently keeps the good movie from being great). But I want to see it, because the two guys really struggled to get their music heard, largely because of Poppins author P.L. Travers, who questioned every decision they (and Disney) made. That they wrote such incredible songs while under such duress is very impressive.
My favorite song from Mary Poppins, “Feed the Birds,” doesn’t have much to do with the plot or the characters. You could even argue that it has no business being there. But amid the clatter of “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” it’s such a nice little respite, a moment that lets the film catch its breath before the next show-stopper. I like the contrast between the minor chords of the verses and the major chords of the chorus, a tension-and-release relationship that makes the chorus sound like sudden rays of sunshine breaking through thick London fog.
Wikipedia says the song was meant to represent a charity-themed contrast to Mr. Banks’s focus on profit and greed, which makes some sense. I like to think of it more as something of an intermission, itself a bit of release after the building tension of faster, more bombastic songs. No matter the intention, it’s just plain beautiful.