SongNotes ~Jamie O’Reilly, Reimagining The Swallow

Poet Gabriela Mistral’s poem Fear inspired songwriter Michael Smith, and became the unforgettable song The Swallow. Jamie sings for her daughters in this reimagined Latin-style ballad, with flutist Lily Floeter adding to Michael Smith’s original tender guitar track.

Daughters Meg and Nia with Lily Floeter

Jamie O’Reilly
Unforgettable: Reimagining The Swallow

I recently asked flutist Lily Floeter to arrange The Swallow song for voice, flute and piano. I’m preparing a May 19th garden concert and singing lullabies in honor of Mother’s Day and my daughters; mothers now themselves.

Like so many of the pieces Michael Smith wrote that we performed together, the song is deceptively complex and timeless. It’s suited to my current repertoire. The Swallow was written for us to perform with my Trio that included Michael and Peter Swenson on guitars, and cellist Bob Weber. Michael originally composed and arranged it for three voices and guitar.

In the recording I share here is the song from my 2001 Swimming Deeper album, with the original track now enhanced by Lily’s ethereal flute, weaving in and out with my voice. As the swallow flies, so do our aspirations for our children. Michael’s rhythmic guitar makes the tune tender and dreamlike, with a little bit of Drume Negrita heard near the end.

Listen to The Swallow

Michael Smith, Jamie O’Reilly

The Source
I asked Michael to set Mistral’s poem after encountering it in a book belonging to the late composer Wayland Rogers, who was both my voice teacher and friend. Wayland composed his piece Apegado a’ mi (Close to me) also based on a Mistral poem, in his apartment upstairs in the mid 80s, while my daughters slept below in the building we shared.

A Nobel Prize winner from Chile, Mistral’s life story intrigued me, and I wanted more of her work in my repertoire. (Read about Gabriela Mistral here:

Poet Gabriela Mistral

“The poetic word in its beauty and emotional intensity had for her the power to transform and transcend human spiritual weakness, bringing consolation to the soul in search of understanding. Her poetry is thus charged with a sense of ritual and prayer.”

(Santiago Daydí-Tolson, The Poetry Foundation site)

The musical inspiration for Michael’s melodies, though not always obvious to me back in the day, are revealing themselves to me now, as I recall conversations we had, listening to and sharing music. One summer afternoon we were listening to an instrumental recording referencing an Afro-Cuban melody. Maybe it was Ry Cooder or Modern Mandolin Quartet.

“Drume Negrita,” Michael said, reaching for his guitar.

Finding Drume Negrita again took some sleuthing. I didn’t remember the full title. Google searches brought only recent pop songs. So I asked my musician friend Stuart Rosenberg, whose sophisticated musical palette would likely know. Sure enough, Stuart linked me to guitarist Rita Payés. Which led me to a very old, vintage recording of Jorge Negrete, a Mexican film star and singer of ranchera ballads. Which led me to Cuban singer Bola de Nieve.

It’s tough to to know which of these recordings came to mind to Michael when he was setting
the Fear poem, or if it was recaling the stirring performances of a singer of Latin ballads he talked about from his coffeehouse days in Miami. This tune, and his fascination with Latin American melodies, analyzed and played for over 60 years on guitar, may have been an inspiration for the feel and melody, but it is distinctly Michael’s tune, and his vast knowledge of many musical genres integrated into his work, that became the song I sing.

The Swallow, lyrics

I don’t want them to turn my little girl into a swallow
She would fly far away, into the sky
And never fly again to my straw bed
Or she would rest in the eaves
Where I could not comb her hair
I don’t want them to turn my little girl into a swallow

I don’t want them to make my little girl a princess
In tiny golden slippers, how could she play on the meadow
And when night came, no longer would she sleep at my side
I don’t want then to make my little girl a princess

And even less do I want them one day to make her queen
They would put her on a throne
Where I could not go to see her
And when nighttime came, I could never rock her.
I don’t want them to make, my little girl a queen.

Poem in Spanish

Yo no quiero que a mi niña
golondrina me la vuelvan;
se hunde volando en el Cielo
y no baja hasta mi estera;
en el alero hace el nido
y mis manos no la peinan.
Yo no quiero que a mi niña
golondrina me la vuelvan.
Yo no quiero que a mi niña
la vayan a hacer princesa.
Con zapatitos de oro
¿cómo juega en las praderas?
Y cuando llegue la noche
a mi lado no se acuesta…
Yo no quiero que a mi niña
la vayan a hacer princesa.
Y menos quiero que un día
me la vayan a hacer reina.
La subirían al trono
a donde mis pies no llegan.
Cuando viniese la noche
yo no podría mecerla…
¡Yo no quiero que a mi niña
me la vayan a hacer reina!

Listen to and read about Lily Floeter here:

Lily Floeter

© Copyright Jamie O’Reilly, J. O’Reilly Productions
Recording produced by Jamie O’Reilly
J. O’Reilly Productions 2001, all rights reserved