“That’s what it’s all about,” Walt Disney would say when the Sherman Brothers played him “Feed the Birds.” Yes, the song is indeed “what it’s all about,” and with the upcoming release of Mary Poppins Returns, I’d like to come back to the best song ever produced by Disney, a song made to demonstrate the pure act of charity.
“Feed the Birds”—originally not slated to appear in Mary Poppins—first formed in the minds of songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. Initially, author P.L. Travers was incredulous about the musicality of the film. “In fact, we’re not going to have music in this film and, in fact, we’re not going to have any prancing and dancing,” Richard Sherman recalls Travers saying to him. Later, Travers wished for only Edwardian period songs to appear in the adaption.
How “Feed the Birds” would ultimately come to fruition almost occupies a mythos—first initiated by Walt Disney asking his top songwriters to read Mary Poppins. In fact, Disney had fought 20 years to acquire the rights to the book, and when he succeeded the Sherman brothers found their subject matter unruly, as the story was a loose assortment of vignettes of a nanny flying in on the East wind and leaving on the West. However, they seized upon the minuscule mention of the bird lady who waits outside the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, elevating her to a role almost as prominent to the story’s success as the magical nanny. Even Mr. Disney himself raised the importance of the role by recruiting the semi-retired Academy Award winning actress from the Grapes of Wrath Jane Darwell to appear as the bird lady.
Additionally, Mary Poppins would be played by the immeasurable talent that is Julie Andrews. The musical was her first feature film, only taking the part because Jack Warner did not offer her the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Andrews would later win Best Actress for Mary Poppins, beating out the woman who claimed the role she coveted, Audrey Hepburn. In fact, with some shade, when Andrews won the Golden Globe for Mary Poppins she said in her acceptance speech, “My thanks to a man… who made all this possible in the first place, Mr. Jack Warner.”
The awards were well deserved, as Andrews delivers the most unique vocal in Disney history. Usually, we associate the studio with large show-tune performances. However, Andrews gives a subtle and restrained delivery. The “modest” nature of her singing not only matches the character’s terse Britishness, but brings together a song that often shifts in styles. Andrews’ soothing and calm voice doesn’t allow you to decide whether to rest peacefully or well up with tears. The performance brings us on the precipice of the holy and magical, even if the magical is far from the central meaning of the song.
The song’s magic also arises from its ability to draw on several genres. For instance, the root melody is Edwardian, composed as a Drawing-room Ballad. Nevertheless, Julie Andrews delivers her vocal melody as a lullaby as she lays the children—Michael and Jane—to bed. Written in a minor key, when approaching the middle 8: from “All around the cathedral…” to “…someone shows that he cares”—explodes a hymnal ballad worthy of the glitziest loudest Disney treatment possible. The shifting components shouldn’t meld together. In fact, they should feel schmaltzy and forced, yet we give over to the song’s gorgeous instrumentation—from the choir to the strings—and its simple hooks gesturing to their minor origin.
Additionally, ballady Disney songs rarely rely on the metaphorical. The biggest ballads from the studio, like “A Whole New World,” “The Circle of Life,” “Let It Go,” etc. are direct. They bang the listener over the head with zero subtly, even down to their titles. However, “Feed the Birds” at first blush doesn’t entail any meaning. The moral derives from the image of a destitute elderly woman at the steps of a church, asking for money to feed her birds. The simple image makes for simple metaphors, whether the birds refer to the marginalized or the children.
The understated moral presents itself as even more mundane because in an otherworldly film about a magical nanny, made by a studio with a theme park nicknamed “The Magic Kingdom,” arises a problem not solvable by magic, not solvable by Kings or Queens, or Fairy Godmothers, or a Genie. The consequences are real, dark, and melancholic. The song within the plot just as the children see their father in the bank, just as they see the old bird lady, just as their father begins to see the error in his ways—binds the film together, binds Mary Poppins’ purpose, and joins Mr Banks’ inability to see what’s in front of his eyes. “Feed the Birds” perfectly bridges P.L. Travers’ sullen stories with the film’s cheery disposition.
Disney ballads usually only work on one level, “Feed the Birds” works on every level. There’s a reason it would go on to be Walt Disney’s favorite song and be a reoccurring musical theme throughout Mary Poppins (playing four times over the course of the film). The song represents everything the company idealizes itself as: altruistic, pure, and with deeper convictions— and what it often fails to measure up to. For that reason, for Julie Andrew’s voice, the marriage between adaption and fidelity, the melody, and its understated quality, it’s the best song Disney’s ever recorded.