Some of us can still remember song lyrics from our teen years. We may forget what we were seeking when we opened the refrigerator door, the exact dates of our children’s birthdays, or why we went into the garage, but these ancient, rhyming words and sentences from long ago seem always to be just beneath the surface of our fragile minds. Go figure!
I have no idea why the words and melody from Bobby Day’s hit, originally called Rock-in Robin, but changed to Rockin’ Robin, keep playing on the squeaky, 45 record player with the thick grooves in my brain.
In 1958, Leon René, under the pseudonym Jimmie Thomas, wrote the song and made it available to Bobby Day (whose actual name was Robert James Byrd), and that act spawned a more-than-minor story in rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues history. The otherwise little-known singer rode the song to a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and even enjoyed a week at the top of the charts, as No. 1. Younger readers may remember better Michael Jackson’s redo version of the song produced in 1972, which was an even greater hit.
Please understand, I am about to venture into territory for which I don’t even have a passport and barely speak the language. I am neither an ornithologist nor a rock-and-roll historian and I know precious little about birds or rock music, for that matter. Nevertheless, as a sociologist student of human behavior, a theologically trained minister, and a person who has been “around the block” a couple of times, I want to raise an important question about one of the lines in this song and its possible implications for our communal life.
While I love the upbeat, positive melody and lyrics, I seriously question the veracity of the statement that “All the little birds on Jaybird Street love to hear the robin go tweet, tweet, tweet.” I know, I know. You haven’t given it much prior thought. But consider carefully what I take to be the romantic, idealized notion that the birds on Jaybird Street might actually enjoy hearing that upstart robin continually go “tweedle-lee-deedle-lee-dee,” over and over.
Consider what common observation has taught us about Blue Jays, for example. They are extremely territorial and aggressive toward other birds. When one considers the potential opinions of anonymous Blue Jays, living on “Jaybird Street,” doubtless named in honor of their ancestors, I question whether they would welcome the intrusions of this non-privileged outsider making different noises on what they regard as their street. In human life, at least, it rarely works that way.
In the present discussions, rantings and ravings about white privilege, LGBTQ and Critical Race Theory, perhaps we should take a lesson from this. Yes, indeed, in our heart of hearts, we would like to think that the differentiated and many-hued birds of God’s kingdom would welcome the song of another, not-entirely-their-kind and distinguished by color and culture. We want to believe that they would celebrate the unique beat and melody issuing from a stranger who “rocks in the treetops all the day long, hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and a-singin’ his song.” My opinion, however, is that this just doesn’t happen.
“People in power who get streets named after them and who can use their power to control or harass others just don’t welcome those who are different or who sing different songs.”
Maybe I should check with Bird Life in Wington or, more appropriately, God’s inspired, written word on this, but in my limited observation people in power who get streets named after them and who can use their power to control or harass others just don’t welcome those who are different or who sing different songs.
I’m also thinking of another set of lyrics from another rock-and-roll hit — this one from 1965. Herbert Newman, head of Era Records, originally was credited with writing it, but it turns out that it was actually Newman’s 12-year-old son who wrote the song, titled The Birds and the Bees.
The pre-adolescent Newman boy had recently received the sexuality talk from his father; you know, the one we often refer to by the euphemism, “the birds and the bees.” This 12-year-old took that phrase and the idea that it is a basic truth that all should know and suggested another fundamental and essential human perspective — that of love.
Jewel Akins sang it, and it may help us not only to remember the lyrics, but to consider its truth as we ponder our present socio-cultural situation. I’ll bet you remember those lines, too.
As we seriously consider how to celebrate those different from us by color, race, origin or gender identity, consider these facts-of-life words from this familiar tune, also set against a birdlife backdrop.
“Let me tell ya ’bout the birds and the bees
And the flowers and the trees
And the moon up above
And a thing called love. …
On a night like this …
It’s so very plain to see
That it’s time you learned about the facts of life
Starting from a to z
Let me tell ya ’bout the birds and the bees
And the flowers and the trees
And the moon up above
And a thing called love.”
Maybe this 12-year-old boy was on to something. What do you think?
Bob Newell has served as a university professor and administrator, a local church pastor and a cross-cultural missionary. He and his wife, Janice, now live in Georgetown, Texas, and he serves churches as transition coach and intentional interim pastor. They were the founders and remain advocates of PORTA, the Albania House in Athens, Greece.