My Thoughts Are Like the Little Birds


Kay with her brother Sam, June 1912


Three central figures L-R: Kay Swift, Bertha Tapper, and Leo Ornstein

This is one of the earliest Kay Swift compositions in existence, dating from around 1910. It uses as its lyrics a poem by Grace H. Duffield and is quite harmonically sophisticated for a 13-year-old to have written.

Swift, the first woman to completely score a Broadway musical (1930), was composing songs by age 6 and was taking classes at what would become Julliard at age 8. In her later years Swift wrote, “Starting at the age of just past four, nothing really mattered much to me except the opera.” Her father worked as a music critic for various New York publications, and both of her parents regularly played the piano at their home.

In 1905, at age eight, Kay Swift began piano and composition training with Bertha Tapper (seen with her musical proteges in the photo on the left). Tapper was a very demanding teacher and ingrained in a young Kay Swift a strong ethic of regular, rigorous practice, which before that time, Swift admitted she was lacking in.

More information on Kay Swift can be found at

the-century-magazine-july-1891About the Lyrics:

Grace Duffield (1869-1926) was a fourth generation writer of hymns, her grandfather being the author of the wildly popular “Stand up, stand up for Jesus.” The lyrics for My Thoughts Are Like the Little Birds were originally printed as a poem entitled For Helen and were featured in The Century Magazine, July 1891. Duffield went on to write the book Anti-Suffrage: Ten Good Reasons which suggested that women were better off properly training their sons to be responsible voters and that women could advocate for legislation better as impartial non-voters. One hundred years later, it is an interesting look back at what today appears as an untenable position for a woman to take on the issue.

Here is the song that I recorded note for note into GarageBand, playing it exactly as Kay wrote it in 1910. I have an English Horn playing the vocal line and a cello playing the bass notes. I was unable to include the subtle tempo changes of the score in GarageBand, but you can find them in the original manuscript below.

Kay Swift’s original manuscript PDF for My Thoughts Are Like the Little Birds: mythoughtsarelikethelittlebirds

Here is the song with only piano instrumentation for the purists.

For the beginner and intermediate piano players out there, you may enjoy this:

Fake-book Style Sheet Music PDF for My Thoughts Are Like the Little Birds: my-thoughts-are-like-the-little-birds

And here is my simplified playing of the song. I created this before I had the whole score, and it is simplified chords played against the melody.

Special thanks to Yale University Library, The Kay Swift Collection

Photo credits:
Kay and Sam Swift: The Kay Swift Papers, Courtesy of Katharine and Nicholas Weber, Trustees, The Kay Swift Memorial Trust

Bertha Tapper Group photo: The Vivian Perlis collection


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