Photo by Bert Katzung, 2003
Bluebird On Your Windowsill
Entertainment fans with long memories will recall
that the first Canadian song to sell a million copies was written
by a Vancouver nurse.
Her name was Carmen Elizabeth Clarke, and in 1947
she worked at what was then called the Hospital for Sick and Crippled
Children, at 250 West 59th Avenue.
Jean Gould, the public relations director of the
hospital when Elizabeth Clarke was there, remembered her well: "She
was always interested in music and writing. I would say she was
a real artiste. And she was very fond of the children. There was
one little boy there who noticed a sparrow that kept hopping down
onto the windowsill next to his bed. And she turned that conversation
into a poem."
There isnt too much you can do in a song with
a sparrow . . . and when Elizabeth Clarke sat down that rainy evening
to write the poem out, she had the first line ready: "Theres
a bluebird on your windowsill." In six hours she had finished.
She called the poem Bluebird on Your Windowsill and later set it
A Province story by Les Wedman on November 7, 1949
quotes Mrs. Clarke as saying, "I didnt intend to write
itit just came." And she added that she still felt like
crying whenever she heard it. She sang her song to her little patientsafter
it became a hit they called it "our song"and friends
and co-workers kept telling her the song was a good one, and so
she eventually sang it on CKNW. "After requests began pouring
in," she told Wedman, "I got the idea the people really
wanted it." Empire Music in New Westminster published it in
1948 and, that same year, Aragon Records, a Vancouver company, made
a records of the tune sung by Don Murphy.
Elizabeth Clarke paid to have that record made.
That would be the last time she would have to do that. Slowly, steadily,
surely, the song began to take off.
CKNWs well-known Rhythm Pals (Mike, Marc and
Jack) recorded it, and also claimed to have contributed something
to the final published version. The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada
says the claim is "unsubstantiated." Several web sites
show that Robert Mellin co-wrote the lyrics. Ive been unable
to find more details of that claim.
Elmer Tippe, of CKWX, remembered the Pals
version of the song well. It was the big one locally. "Mike,
Marc and Jack were a brand-new singing group at the time. Bluebird
was being played constantly. It was on their 30th anniversary album
issued in 1977." Later, Wilf Carter recorded it, and then the
song jumped the border and was recorded in the U.S. by Tex Williams.
So far, all of these versions were by country-and-western
singers. When the song "crossed over" to the pop side
in the US, it really began to break out. Wedman cited versions by
Carmen Cavallaro, Freddy Martin, Ralph Flanagan, Charlie Kunz, the
Andrews Sisters and several others. Then Doris Day recorded it,
and so did Bing Crosby, and 38-year-old Elizabeth Clarke found herself
the author of a monster hit.
In 1949 the March of Dimes chose Bluebird as the
theme song for its 1950 national fund-raising campaign.
What makes this story particularly memorable is
that Elizabeth Clarke donated every dollar she got for the song
to childrens hospitals across Canada. It was an act of extraordinary
generosity. The Childrens Hospitals records for that
period are buried somewhere in their archives, so it isnt
possible to say how much money was involved . . . but the various
versions of the song topped a million copies (in a day when that
was rare) and the sheet music brought in more. In 1985, the song
was used in Sandy Wilsons movie My American Cousin, and the
Vancouver jazz group Mother of Pearl use the tune in their shows.
Newspaper stories show that Elizabeth Clarke wrote
other songs, but none had the impact of that simple little tune
inspired by the rainy-day visit of a sparrow to an ailing child.
In July, 1960, aged just 49, Elizabeth Clarke died
in Altamont Private Hospital in West Vancouver.
Archive - People »
- Places »
- Events »
- Books, etc. »