Ethel Waters and ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’
By DR. DAVID KING, Ph.D. | Published February 23, 2023
In Georgia novelist Carson McCullers’ wonderful 1946 novel “The Member of the Wedding,” the troubled adolescent girl Frankie Adams exclaims that “Here we are—right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. And it will never come again. Never in all the world. When it is gone it is gone. No power on earth could bring it back again. It is gone.”
In a sense, Frankie is correct. But if one considers the transcendent power of art and spirituality, she is wrong.
I was transported back in time to my childhood a few days ago. I suddenly found myself in two places—a cot in a house in Valdosta, and my grandmother’s guest bedroom in Atlanta. In both cases I was being sung to sleep, and the song sung in those old houses was the same, the old gospel tune “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
That I was given the gift of revisiting my childhood is the result of the Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann film adaptation of McCullers’ novel and play. In the film, as in the stage play, after a particularly histrionic outburst from Frankie, the three main characters—Frankie, played by Julie Harris; John Henry, played by Brandon De Wilde; and Berenice, played by Ethel Waters—suddenly break into a tearful rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Frankie and John Henry sit in Berenice’s lap as she embraces them and follows John Henry’s lead-in to the song:
“Jesus is my portion. My constant friend is he: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
I defy anyone to watch that pivotal scene from a powerful film and not be moved. The song has been performed by many famous singers, but to me, it will always belong to Ethel Waters. Her performance, accompanied by the children, is riveting. It is no wonder that Waters titled her splendid autobiography “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
The song was written in 1905 by Charles H. Gabriel with lyrics by Civilla D. Martin. It clearly references St. Matthew’s Gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount when Christ says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Later in the Gospel, when Christ is instructing his apostles how they should spread the word, he assures them, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. Fear you not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.” Martin lived for many years in Atlanta, and is in fact buried in Westview Cemetery, not far from the gravesites of my own parents.
McCullers includes the singing scene in the novel, but no specific song is named. For the Broadway play, which opened in 1950 and ran for over 500 performances, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” was added to the script at the suggestion of Waters, who was not happy with the production’s initial portrayal of either her character or song.
“They didn’t even want me singing ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow.’ They wanted some kind of song I never heard of and no [Black person] in Georgia had ever heard of, and that’s the part I was playing. One day, during rehearsal, I hummed it almost subconsciously, I guess. I was singing that song since I was 8 years old, and as soon as I hummed I knew that was the song [for the play].”
A life-changing role
Like the character she plays, Ethel Waters had a particularly hard, yet fascinating, life before she appeared on Broadway in what became her most famous role on either stage or screen. Born in 1896, the baby of a 13-year-old rape victim, she might have been destined for only struggle and suffering. At the age of 6, suffering from a severe illness, Waters was taken by her grandmother to a Catholic priest in Philadelphia to be baptized. Though she later embraced the evangelical preaching of Billy Graham, she always identified with her Catholic baptism.
As a teenager, Waters began performing with a Baltimore vaudeville troop, and by the 1920s she was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She gradually worked her way into theater and film, and in 1949 she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Elia Kazan’s film “Pinky.” Then in 1950, she accepted the role that would change her life: Berenice in the stage adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding.”
She did not take the role for granted, nor did she entirely cooperate with McCullers and the production staff. She resisted the original “dirty role” of Berenice, who was to be a heavy drinker and smoker who had lost her faith. Waters instead envisioned a powerful, liberating, matriarchal figure—all characteristics that are evident in the novel—who would have to possess a powerful bond with the children. At the same time, she knew that the play could be another work to revitalize the American theater mid-century.
Because of Waters’ persistence, the cast became one of those unique ensembles that are fixed in the imagination of the audience. It is almost impossible for me to accept any other cast than Harris, De Wilde and Waters; the chemistry they had is remarkable. My former professor, the late Virginia Spencer Carr, who remains the most important McCullers scholar, writes in her biography of McCullers that “Waters had become Berenice at last, an organic part of the close-knit little group that revolved around her in the kitchen.”
And one of the most important moments that underscores that organic connection is through the singing of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” As the novel puts it, “They sang a special music that the three of them made up together. John Henry sang in a high wailing voice … Berenice’s voice was dark and definite and deep … Frankie sang up and down the middle space, so that their three voices were joined, and the parts of the song were woven together.”
Whether read on the page, or seen on stage or screen, the effect is profound. The harmony of three distinct voices, and experiences, singing as one is both emotionally affecting and deeply spiritual. Old and young, male and female, Black and white—all come together as one under the gaze of a loving God whose eye watches and cares for all.
“The Member of the Wedding,” like much of Carson McCullers’ work, is currently being reconsidered. For our own time, and our concerns with race relations and gender issues, McCullers’ lonely and alienated characters are strikingly relevant.
I showed my modern drama class the “His Eye is on the Sparrow” scene from the 1952 film, and there were several students who were moved to tears. How fortunate we are that this brilliant moment can never really pass and endures as a testament to the power of both art and faith.
Ethel Waters’ performance as Berenice, and her striking interpretation of a beloved song, are beautiful reminders of our shared faith that transcends all barriers and borders and testifies to the truth that in Christ, we are all indeed “members.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.