Given Classic Clips has recently featured very-big-to-biggish-name artists like The Rolling Stones, Crosby and Nash and Mumford & Sons, it might be a surprise that next up is a performance of what was at the time an unreleased track by a much less famous singer-songwriter, with its title the name of the most common-or-garden birds on the planet. Yet just like sparrows can be found pretty much everywhere, there’s something remarkably universal about this track by Canadian musician Catherine MacLellan. It’s a deceptively succinct and understated lament for somebody missing who clearly once had massive importance in her life, and the anguish at their loss is starkly encapsulated here in just two four-line verses and one equally short chorus.
Part of why those two brief verses are so evocative is the contrast between them: in the first verse she hones in how losing a loved one leaves us glimpsing just the outline of someone’s personality, “only silhouettes and shadows remain”. Yet in the second she highights how near-intangible, tiny bits of a shared past do linger on, but physically they are almost impossible to shed or distinguish: rather, they “stick to me like grains of sand”.
Binding the two verses together is a chorus, repeated only once, but which leaves no doubt as to the depth of that loss.
“Where are you now in this world?
Is your voice being heard among the sparrows?
Where are you now in this lonely world?
Is your voice being heard among the birds?”
Looking for an answer that can’t be found is a woesomely familiar experience to anybody suffering a bereavement or separation. But expressing absence as the displaced sound of a voice “among the sparrows/birds” is a very individual masterstroke in this song: by being disembodied and something heard, but no longer seen, the missing person remains both more permanently present, yet simultaneously more diffuse and harder to reach. That’s just the lyrics. Quite apart from the delicate fluidity of the two accompanying acoustic guitars on this track (and the interplay between MacLellan and longstanding musical partner Chris Gauthier is a joy to hear), MacLellan’s singing is reason enough for why ‘Sparrows’ strikes home so hard. Her voice seems to carry volumes of etched-out power and pain, soaring above the guitars to some out-of-the-world places and yet time and again, with a warmth capable of making those impossible emotional questions that crop up so often in art (including here) feel accesible and natural.
It’s often commented (and many of her albums reinforce that connection) how much Catherine MacLellan’s work and her father Gene, form two overlapping circles of inspiration and creativity. Apart from being a musician in his own right and posthumously inducted into the Canada Country Music Hall of Fame, Gene was also famous for writing songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Joan Baez.
Part of a densely productive musical scene on Prince Edward Island for over two decades, MacLellan pays tribute to his writing both directly, as on her 2017 album ‘If it’s alright with you – The songs of Gene MacLellan’ (2017) and indirectly, like on the album which finally saw ‘Sparrows’ recorded, ‘Silhouette’ (2011), which contains one of his best-known songs, ‘Snowbird’, a massive early 1970s hit for fellow-Canadian artist Anne Murray. This performance, recorded by Musicfog.com, of ‘Sparrows’ is also arguably a Classic Clip in another way, as this performance takes place during the SXSW Festival in Threadgill’s, one of the most famous and best-loved bars, restaurants and music venues in Austin (and given how many music joints there are in Austin, that’s saying a lot). Threadgill’s closed permanently during the pandemic, but as one of many tributes to its role in promoting americana music for the best part of a century, ‘Sparrows’ can’t be faulted, either.