little yellow bird

Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird

In this post I want to share the song, Little Yellow Bird, also known as ‘Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird.’ which I feel is a beautiful little reminder on what really matters in life, in our super materialistic world. A bitter-sweet and beautiful reminder that ‘things’ are not everything. 

I first heard the song while watching the movie The Picture of Dorian Grey (1945). It is an artful adaption of the novel by the same title, written by Oscar Wilde in 1891. It is a must read and one worth reading several times over, with lots of content to flesh out especially around the themes of impulse, desire, indulgence, and temptation. In it Angela Lansbury, playing Sibyl Vane, delivers a memorable performance. 

You can watch Angela Lansbury singing Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird from the movie here or here.

Although the song is often attributed to Clarence Wainwright Murphy, the songwriter’s actual name was Charles William Murphy who lived from 1870-1913. C.W Murphy was a prolific British composer, composing for music hall, theatre and several famous songs in movies during his time. Little Yellow Bird was trademarked in 1903.

I have a great love of classic cinema and grew up watching silent movies and silver screen musicals and classics – mostly the black and white movies of the ‘golden years’ of Hollywood, more specifically from around the late 1920s to early 1940s. 

I spent much of my childhood binging on Turner Classic Movies, rewatching the same film on VHS tapes several times in one setting. I would regularly travel far to browse favorite second hand bookshops searching for books on the film industry, plays and poetry, and ones on favorite actors and actresses like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers. 

Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird was initially performed in the 1938 movie  Alf’s Button Afloat, where it was sung by Scottish comedian Charlie Naughton. And 40 years after Angela Lansbury sang the song in The Picture of Dorian Grey, she sang it again in an episode of  her TV series Murder She Wrote, “Sing a Song of Murder”, (1985).

Angela Lansbury and the actor playing Dorian Grey – Hurd Hatfield – actually became lifetime friends after the film. He later featured on some episodes of her show. 

The Picture of Dorian Grey was Lansbury’s second film and the only one in which her mother – Moyna Macgill – appears. Moyna was an Irish actress from Belfast, and was considered one of Ireland’s greatest film actors.

The painting featured in the movie was painted by the famous artist Ivan Albright. You can see it in person at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Picture of Dorian Gray poster

Little Yellow Bird is a melancholy ballad, written by composer C.W. Murphy and lyricist W. Hargreave.

Something about this song really strikes me each time I hear it sung. The song’s message is about not giving up your freedom.

Overall I think both the song and the book are under appreciated, both containing messages that we could use today – such as standing firm for your beliefs, not giving up our freedoms for material things. And to not betray your inner self. 


(from “The Picture of Dorian Gray”)
Lyrics by Charles William Murphy – Music by William Hargreaves

The snow was very plentiful,
And crumbs were very few
When a weather-beaten sparrow
Through a mansion window flew.
Her eye fell on a golden cage;
A sweet love song she heard,
Sung by a pet canary there,
A handsome yellow bird.
He said to her: “Miss Sparrow,
I’ve been struck by Cupid’s arrow.
Would you share my cage with me?”
She looked up at his castle,
with its ribbon and its tassel,
and in a plaintive tone said she:

“Good-bye, little yellow bird.
I’d rather brave the cold
On a leafless tree
Than a prisoner be
In a cage of gold.

The spoiled and petted yellow bird
Could scarce believe it true
That a common sparrow should refuse
A bird with blood so blue.
He told her the advantages
Of riches and of gold.
She answered that her liberties
For gold could not be sold.
She said “I must be going.”
But he cried “No, no, its snowing,
And the wintry winds do blow.`
Stay with me, my little dearie,
For without you ‘twould be dreary.”
But she only sighed “Ah, no.”

“Good-bye, little yellow bird.
I’d gladly mate with you –
I love you, little yellow bird,
But I love my freedom, too.
So good-bye, little yellow bird.
I’d rather brave the cold
On a leafless tree
Than a prisoner be
In a cage of gold.” 

Source of the lyrics If you’d like to read more about the song and the film, you can click here and here.

10 thoughts on “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird”

  1. Wonderful essay on Angela Landsbury and the movie”Picture of Dorian Grey”. I quite agree with him on his views.

  2. Thank you for posting this info about the song. I admire Angela Lansbury and I guess that she personally loved this song. I remember that she sang this very song in at least two different chapters of Murder She Wrote, and in the other film you mentioned.
    I was looking for the lyrics and music to learn to sing it. So much I like it. So thank you again for all these details. 💕💖💕

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely message. I really appreciate it, and it’s wonderful that know that there are other people that appreciate the song so much!

  3. Thanks for an OUTSTANDING write-up. Angela played duo roles in three Murder She Wrote episodes where she put on a flamboyant personality and clothing to match. I recall her singing “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” in a MSW episode that takes place in a London live theater as Emma McGill. CHEERS!

  4. Harriet Russell

    This is a surprise. I was actually looking for the notes to a song my mother sang when was little. (Today is my 82nd birthday.)
    “So bye bye
    little yellow bird
    I’d rather face the cold
    than live with thee
    and a prisoner be
    in a cage of gold.”

  5. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. My Grandmother Katie used to sing this song to me when I was a very small child while my mother worked in a factory and my father was away in Borneo fighting in ww2. Katie would not have finished the first line of the chorus before I began crying. I had no idea of the connection of this song with the movie, but I shall now investigate it more, starting with looking at the movie.

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