When the swallows come back to Capistrano,
That’s the day you promised to come back to me.
Composer Leon René was listening to the radio on March 19, 1939 when he chanced upon a live broadcast of the swallows returning to Capistrano. Sensing something romantic in the little birds’ annual journey, he quickly penned the now famous song, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano. It would turn out to be one of René’s biggest hits. In 1940, the Ink Spots took it to number 4 on the charts and Glenn Miller pushed it to number 2! The song charted again in 1967 with Pat Boone’s version before settling comfortably into the realms of nostalgia. Along the way Gene Autry, Xavier Cugat, Bobby Day, The Dominoes, The Five Satins, Emile Ford, Harry James & His Orchestra, The King Sisters, Guy Lombardo, Tony Martin, Billy May, Carmen McRae, Dick Todd, and Billy Ward & The Dominoes all recorded the sentimental tune. These various musical stylings permanently stamped the American psyche with the belief that a combination of swallows, Capistrano and March 19th was both romantic and worthy of commemoration.
The process began twenty years before the song when Father St. John O’Sullivan moved into the dilapidated Mission of San Juan Capistrano. Though the swallows had been migrating for centuries, no one (other than a few birders) had particularly noticed. O’Sullivan, however, was impressed by the birds. He admired how they returned to their mud nests each year. He admired how they would roust any squatters and then set about sprucing up their homes. In a way, it was akin to the revitalization of the mission that he was undertaking. O’Sullivan also noticed that the swallows returned precisely on March 19th every year. News of the amazing sparrows began to spread with the 1930’s publication of his story, Legend of the Swallow’s Return. In that story, he related how a kindly Franciscan Padre had seen a local shopkeeper destroying the sparrow’s nests. The shopkeeper explained that the birds and their nests were a nuisance. The Padre, seeing the distraught (and now homeless) birds invited them to nest at the mission. Evidently they accepted. The story was popular but not widely known until O’Sullivan convinced a radio station to broadcast the birds’ return live one March 19th. The swallows returned on cue and Capistrano became an iconic part of our culture.
There’s something wonderfully optimistic about the swallows of Capistrano. We know that they winter 7,500 miles away in Goya, Argentina and that they come home every March 19th no matter what kind of craziness we’re inflicting upon ourselves at the time. (It took real courage to return in 1958—the year Sheb Wooley’s hit, “Purple People Eater” topped the charts!) The steadiness and reliability of the migration provides a soothing counterpoint to the frenetic pace of change in our lives. It’s something we can count on—something that inspires hope and the promise of new beginnings. And the swallows’ own no nonsense homecoming seems like their avian way of telling us human folk to just stop fussing and settle down to the business of life.
There’s a wonderful rhythm to the business of life. Light follows the darkness, rainbows follow the storm and the swallows always return to Capistrano—on March 19th. — Ebert