The Great Speckled Bird<
My first initiation into singing in front of a live audience was in the little Nazarene Church I grew up in. It was a small, old fashioned, but homey church. We had tent revivals, prayer meetings, Old Fashioned Days where we dressed up like “Little House on the Prairie” and Old Fashioned Singings of which Gospel music was always the headliner along with some good old fashioned preaching. We sang every hymn in the book and every verse on the page. To this day, the words and melodies are forever ingrained in my mind’s jukebox. I’m so thankful for that foundation, although it was extremely conservative and I was always pushing for broader horizons and bigger ideas in a “Countrytime Lemonade crowd”, I appreciate the foundation I had, and the legacy of gospel music and hymns it gave me for a lifetime.
The first song I ever sang at church was an early favorite of mine called “The Great Speckled Bird”. It was recorded by Johnny Cash in 1959, Roy Acuff in 1936, and even Jerry Lee Lewis. I was a tiny little girl who loved music from an early age. I wrote my first song at the age of 8 – chords, melody, theory in place and all. But I was also a bashful and shy one. You could say I had a little bit of stage fright which couldn’t be farther from the truth now! I was called up to the front to sing a song and my dad was the piano player who played every week. But I was afraid. I was too shy, and the thought of singing in front of a bunch of people scared the living daylights out of me. But I remember that they asked me “would you do it if your aunt came up with you and held the hymn book?” And I said yes. My Aunt Maryland would from that day on, be an unknown but necessary factor in my future of music. She came up and hovered around me, holding the hymn book in place while I held the microphone and stared down at the lyrics of “The Great Speckled Bird”. I could have held the hymn book myself, but for some reason, being the shy little girl I was, I just couldn’t look the audience in the eye and sing the song I already knew so well. It was one of my favorite songs as a small child and I was probably no more than 5 when I first sang it. If not for my Aunt Maryland, I probably never would have come up there to sing it. But just knowing she was there, like a covering of protection for me, made it bearable. And once I realized I could get through the song and nothing terrible happened, I was able to finally do it without her standing there with me.
As time went by, I began feeling more comfortable with that part of music. It was all inside, all in my heart of hearts, and my songs began to flow more and more from my pen. But I just needed a shelter of sorts to get me going. I wasn’t too bad of a singer at that young age, but I wasn’t anything spectacular either. It was all there, it just needed a little nurturing and coaxing to come out to its full potential.
I think about how many people have so much gift inside them, but they just can’t look the audience in the eye yet. There are people who have been through horrendous circumstances and life experiences that have bruised them and given them a sad story to tell, and one day it’s God’s plan to use that story and those circumstances to reach someone else who’s going through the same thing. It’s all inside their heart of hearts but they just need someone to stand hovered behind them so they can just get through the first song they have to sing. Once they realize just how much of a gift God has entrusted to them and how He can use that gift more and more, they continue on without someone holding their hymn book.
So many times I hear people in church circles all worried about allowing certain people the opportunity to be used in ministry because they are a little rough around the edges, or they don’t have that shiny Christian gloss to them. I think that the best ministers are the people who have been on the front lines of life’s ugly tragedies and who have allowed God to use those dire experiences for good. Sometimes, they just need someone to believe in them, someone to stand behind them, and despite how unrefined they are at the moment, they need someone who can see what God can do with them down the road. But too many times, our ministries expect perfection. Many future revolutionists are lost because we couldn’t take the time, and won’t “waste our time” on someone if we don’t see that “they’ve got what it takes” right from the get go.
I’m glad that someone in my life, and the people in my little old fashioned church, believed in me enough to see that God could use someone as timid and scared like me. I’m sure I didn’t wow the crowd with my little rendition of “The Great Speckled Bird” that day, but it must have been enough since they let me sing many a Sunday after that.
“The Great Speckled Bird” was written by The Reverend Guy Smith. It is based on Jeremiah 12:9, “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour.” It was recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff. It was also later recorded by Johnny Cash (in 1959), Hank Locklin (1962), Bert Southwood [in 1990], and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Both the song and the passage from Jeremiah may be a poetic description of mobbing behavior. One version of this great church song has the following lyrics:
What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning the Great Speckled Bird
Remember her name is recorded
On the pages of God’s Holy Word
With all the other birds flocking around her
She is so despised by them all
The Great Speckled Bird in the Bible
Representing the great Church of God
In trying to lower her standards
They watch every move that she makes
They long to find fault with her teachings
But really they find no mistakes
I am glad I have learned of her meekness
I am proud that my name’s on her book
For I want to be one never fearing
On the face of my Savior to look
When He cometh descending from heaven
On the cloud that He writes in His Word
I’ll be joyfully carried to meet Him
On the wings of that great speckled bird