Maya Angelou? Joan Walsh Anglund? William Hazlitt? Alfred Lord Tennyson? Jimmie Allison? Lou Holtz?
Dear Quote Investigator: In 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released a controversial commemorative stamp featuring the prominent author Maya Angelou which displayed the following words:
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
Angelou’s best-known work was titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, and the expression above seems to be thematically connected; however, the words were not originally crafted by Angelou. Would you please explore the provenance of this quotation?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in “A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems” by Joan Walsh Anglund, a popular children’s book author. The collection was published in 1967, and the following verse was printed by itself on a single page; note that the phrasing differed slightly from the words on the stamp because it used the identifier “he” instead of “it”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
A bird does not sing because he has an answer.
He sings because he has a song.
The quotation was reassigned to the category Chinese proverb by 1984. In 1995 it was re-ascribed to someone named Howard Clemmons, and by 2001 it was reassigned to Maya Angelou. Detailed citations are given further below.
Speculations and pronouncements about the motivations of singing birds have a long and variegated history. The examples shown in this article will emphasize the internal wellsprings of avian desire instead of external goals.
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations for this topic and shared them with QI for this article.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1818 the influential British literary and art critic William Hazlitt published an article about opera in the London journal “The Yellow Dwarf”. Hazlitt compared the divergent purposes of an opera star and a singing bird: 2
…the thrush that awakes at day-break with its song, does not sing because it is paid to sing, or to please others, or to be admired or criticised. It sings because it is happy; it pours the thrilling sounds from its throat, to relieve the overflowings of its own heart—the liquid notes come from, and go to the heart, dropping balm into it, as the gushing spring revives the traveller’s parched and fainting lips.
In 1850 the famous British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson released the work “In Memoriam A. H. H.” about his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died at the young age of twenty-two in 1833. Tennyson feared that critics would condemn the elegy as a showy “parade of pain” designed for his own gain. Tennyson answered this potential complaint with a verse within the poem that stated he had to “sing” or “pipe” according to the same mandate compelling a bird such as the linnet to sing: 3
Behold, ye speak an idle thing:
Ye never knew the sacred dust:
I do but sing because I must,
And pipe but as the linnets sing:
In 1886 “The Biblical Recorder” of Raleigh, North Carolina employed a hydraulic analogy when discussing the impetus of the singing bird: 4
A fountain doesn’t flow because of a sense of duty, but because it is full; and of its fullness it overflows. A bird doesn’t sing because it has to, but because of the inward thrill that must find vent in the outward trill.
In 1889 a religious book emphasized the spur provided by the possession of a song. This notion matched the quotation under examination: 5
A bird sings because it has a song and must sing it.
In 1902 a column in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York suggested that duty was not the key motivator: 6
The spring does not pour forth because it is its duty, the little bird does not sing because of duty, but because its little heart would burst if it did not sing.
In 1949 a biographical work called “The Sage of the Hills” highlighted the importance of having a song in the heart: 7
It should be remembered that the Nightingale does not sing just because we listen; it sings because it has a song in its heart.
In 1950 the “Richmond Times Dispatch” printed the following about why a bird sings: 8
The import of it, is, simply this—the bird is asked why it sings and replies, “I know not, I know not, my heart is so full of song I can’t help it!” Jenny forgets herself, and becomes the bird, and sings as the bird sings, because she can’t help it.
In 1967 Joan Walsh Anglund published a book of poems which included the following verse as noted previously:
A bird does not sing because he has an answer.
He sings because he has a song.
In February 1970 a Chillicothe, Missouri newspaper mentioned an educational and musical organization called ‘Up With People’. A version of the saying was employed by someone who was a member of the group. No attribution to Anglund was given: 9
Thoughts from the “Up With People” friends included:
“The bird sings not because he has an answer, but because he has a song.”
Also in February 1970 a speaker at a garden club meeting in Georgia used the expression without attribution: 10
Mrs. Riddle began her program by saying “A bird doesn’t sing because he has the answer, he sings because he has a song.”
In 1973 a columnist named Jimmie Allison in a Mexia, Texas newspaper used the saying without attribution: 11
A bird does not sing because he has an answer; He sings because he has a Song.
In 1974 the connection between Anglund and the quotation was recalled in a St. Petersburg, Florida newspaper: 12
“A bird does not sing
Because he has an answer.
Because he has a song”
FROM “A CUP OF SUN”
J. W. ANGLUND
In 1985 “Mademoiselle” magazine published an astrology column called “Starcast” that implausibly asserted the quotation using “it” was a Chinese proverb: 13
Your year ahead can be summed up by a lovely Chinese proverb: “A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
In 1988 a newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia also asserted that the saying was a Chinese proverb: 14
Reminds one of the Chinese proverb: A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
In 1990 an interview with Maya Angelou was published in the paradigmatic literary location: “The Paris Review”. She stated emphatically that her metaphorical singing was a difficult task: 15
Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.
In May 1995 a newspaper in Mobile, Alabama printed a section of high school campus news which included the saying with an attribution to “Angland”, a misspelled instance of Anglund: 16
This week’s quote is from Angland. It is, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
In June 1995 a commentator in a Granbury, Texas newspaper shared the saying with readers without attribution: 17
How ’bout It? Howard
A bird does not sing because he has an answer—He sings because he has a song!
— Howard Clemmons
In 1997 the collection “Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions” included the following: 18
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. — CHINESE PROVERB
By 2001 the version of the saying using “it” had been reassigned to Maya Angelou. For example, “The Index-Journal” of Greenwood, South Carolina printed a section called “Quotes” which included the following instance: 19
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” —
In 2003 the saying was credited to a prominent football coach in a Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper: 20
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
Lou Holtz, University of South Carolina football coach
A website for Blues music enthusiasts in Greece published a webpage dated 2013 which presented an article titled “Dr. Maya Angelou: A Muse In Our Midst”. The text appeared to be an interview with Angelou. A remark about her famous memoir included an instance of the quotation, but Angelou did not claim credit for coinage: 21
I would like to start with the book “I Know Why Cage Birds Sings”. Why do people write poetry and play music?
Dr. Angelou: They write because they have something to say, something about life, sometimes something about pain, something about love, even something about laughter. I wrote the book because “Bird Sings Why The Caged I Know” is a song. A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
In April 2015 after the text of the quotation on Angelou’s commemorative stamp was announced, a journalist at “The Washington Post” described uncertainty regarding the provenance of the saying: 22
Jabari Asim, associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College in Boston, was excited. Until he read the quote on the Angelou stamp:
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
Funny thing, he had always thought the quote came from Joan Walsh Anglund, the prolific children’s book author.
A few days later “The Washington Post” reported that the 89-year-old Anglund had claimed credit for the quotation: 23
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” the Angelou “Forever” stamp reads.
“Yes, that’s my quote,” Anglund said Monday night from her Connecticut home. It appears on page 15 of her book of poems “A Cup of Sun,” published in 1967. Only the pronouns and punctuation are changed, from “he” in Anglund’s original to “it” on the stamp.
In conclusion, QI believes that Joan Walsh Anglund should be credited with the words she wrote in 1967. The close variant saying using “it” instead of “he” was derived from Anglund’s expression. A large number of precursor statements about singing birds circulated in the 1800s and 1900s, but QI has not found a strong match antedating Anglund’s verse.
Images Notes: Picture of a bird in silhouette from fokustier at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to the anonymous individuals who contacted me as this story was unfolding back in April 2015. Thanks also to Ben Zimmer, Stephen Goranson, Barry Popik, Jay Dillon and other discussants for early heads-up, feedback, and research.)
- 1967, A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems by Joan Walsh Anglund, Quote Page 15 (also printed on inside front flap), Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, New York (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1818 May 23, The Yellow Dwarf: A Weekly Miscellany, Issue Number 21, The Little Hunch-Back: On The Opera, by W. H. (William Hazlitt), Start Page 165, Quote Page 166, Printed and Published by J. Hunt, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1850, In Memoriam A. H. H., Obit MDCCCXXXIII, Third Edition, Section: XXI, Quote Page 36, Edward Moxon, London. (Google Books full View) link ↩
- 1886 January 27, Biblical Recorder, The Dead Point, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1889, Christ and Our Country: Or, A Hopeful View of Christianity in the Present Day by Reverend John B. Robins (of the North Georgia Conferences), Second Edition, Quote Page 133, Published by Publishing House of the M. E. Church, South, Agent: J. D. Barbee, Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 January 6, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Section: Progress the Keynote of Sermons in Many of the Churches, Dr. P.S. Henson On Pressing Onward by P.S. Henson, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers.com) link ↩
- 1949 Copyright, The Sage of the Hills: Life Story of the Reverend W. G. “Bill” Lucas by J. M. Gaskin (Jesse Marvin Gaskin), (Life story of William Gilbert Lucas (1874-1947)), Quote Page 36, Printed and Published by Oklahoma Baptist University Press, Shawnee, Oklahoma. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1950 December 17, Richmond Times Dispatch, Jenny Lind Sang Here 100 Years Ago and the Memory Is Still Prodigious, Quote Page A7, Column 5 and 6, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1970 February 9, The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, Letters From Two Girls–After Chillicothe, ‘Up With People’ to Paris, White House, Quote Page 9, Chillicothe, Missouri. (Newspaper_com) ↩
- 1970 February 22, Rome News-Tribune, Mrs. Spencer speaks on birds at Laurel Garden Club meeting, Quote Page 6D, Column 3, Rome, Georgia. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1973 May 24, Mexia Daily News, Tehuacana News by Jimmie Allison, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Mexia, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1974 August 19, St. Petersburg Times, Section: Pinellas Times, (Quotation was a filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1985 January, Mademoiselle, Volume 91, Section: Astrology, Starcast: Happy Birthday Capricorn! Author: Maxine Lucille Fiel, Quote Page 144, Published by Conde Nast, New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1988 December 15, New Straits Times, Section: MCCE Bulletin (Malaysian Council for Computers in Education), Article: CALL Learning Environment — the Present And Future, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1990 Fall, The Paris Review, Number 116, Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119, Interviewed by George Plimpton, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (Online archive of The Paris Review at theparisreview.org; accessed December 4, 2015) link ↩
- 1995 May 5, Press-Register (Mobile Register), Campus News: Baldwin County High by Brannan Pedersen, Quote Page 10, Mobile, Alabama. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1995 June 10, Hood County News, How ’bout It? Howard, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Granbury, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Quote Page 177, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2001 September 16, The Index-Journal, Quotes, Quote Page 4D, Column 3, Greenwood, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2003 April 11, Knoxville News Sentinel, Section: Home & Garden, Accents, Quote Page E1, Knoxville, Tennessee. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- Website: Blues GR: Keep the Blues Alive: Blog, Article title: Dr. Maya Angelou: A Muse In Our Midst, Article description: Interview of Dr. Maya Angelou by Michael Limnios, Date on website: June 1, 2013, Website description: The online community of people that got the blues in Greece. (Accessed blues.gr on April 9, 2015) link ↩
- 2015 April 4, The Washington Post, Maya Angelou’s new stamp uses a quote that may not be entirely hers; The Maya Angelou stamp features a beautiful quote — that someone else may also have written by Lonnae O’Neal, Timestamp: 2015-04-04 19:10:00, No Page Number Listed, Washington D.C. (ProQuest National Newspapers Premier) ↩
- 2015 April 7, The Washington Post, Whose words? Author lays a claim to Angelou quote by Lonnae O’Neal, Quote Page C1, Washington D.C. (ProQuest National Newspapers Premier) ↩