Blackbird – Leah Siegel
Recorded on August 26, 2010, original version recorded on June 11, 1968.
Leah Siegel: Vocals
Roger Greenawalt: Ukulele
Produced by Roger Greenawalt at Shabby Road Studio in Brooklyn, NY
About the Song
Blackbird is a Paul McCartney song about Black People from the White Album.
McCartney has said that the song was a reaction to the racial unrest in America in the spring of 1968. After Dr. King was killed, there were riots in over 80 American cities. This is the sort of thing that gives riots a bad name.
Modern gender political correctness did not exist in1968. Black “bird” is like saying black “chick”. Bird is British slang for girls. I wish that slang had caught on in America. Girls are birdlike, small, delicate, nervous, colorful, and beautiful. And they never stop chattering.
Free love was all well and good but Hippie Chicks were still expected to cook and clean and take care of the babies. And pay their own way. The girly revolution hadn’t kicked in yet.
Anysome, back to black.
“Black bird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”
This is an amazing first line to a song. Impossible to go wrong after such a strong start. The lyrics sound so good together. Take the K sounds, black/take/broken. KKK. Ha ha ha. Singing/wings. Dead of night/learn to fly. A double paradox. Birds do not sing at night. Broken wings can’t fly. But the key word here is “these”. If McCartney was really writing about black folks, then he would have said, “take your broken wings”. This song is not about people of color, it is about Paul McCartney’s favorite subject:
John Lennon had recently had a near death experience in Scotland. A car crash. His fault, he was driving. With Yoko and kids to boot. They were hurt badly enough to end up in the hospital. This was John’s initial excuse for bringing in Yoko and her bed to the studio. But like many people who have come close to the brink, the experience became a catalyst for a major life change. I’ve been dumped twice by long time girlfriends shortly after the death of a parent. It makes you take stock. In John’s case, the major life change was Yoko and quitting the Beatles. Many of his actions were deliberately provocative from Spring 68, till Fall 69, the last time The Beatles worked together. It didn’t take him long to kill the band.
Paul may not be clever with a capital K like John, but he’s far from stupid. McCartney is a musical and business genius. He knew John was leaving him and he didn’t like it. He wrote the best work of his life during this period to impress John and attempted to assume leadership of The Beatles to save the band, but it didn’t work.
Paul is the one who is singing in the dead of night. He’s the one with broken wings. He is trying to encourage himself to soldier on in the face of disaster. He is only waiting for his moment to arise. He is only waiting for this moment to be free. And what did he end up calling his solo band?
The Beatles were not just at the forefront of the Peace Movement, but have impeccable civil rights cred too. Black people made most of the music that inspired them. They toured and played with black artists a lot. When they chose a fifth member for the Get Back album sessions, it was a black man, keyboard virtuoso Billy Preston. And John Lennon was one of the first major western celebrities to have an inter-racial marriage. He was pilloried for this. Just because Yoko was an embarrassing and vulgar narcissistic musical dilettante was no excuse for the many racist and sickening things said about her in the late 60’s. People actually said in print that she was physically ugly. Not true. She is even now a very handsome 70-year-old woman. It’s her personality that is and remains ugly.
Musically Blackbird is inspired by the Andre Segovia transcription of J.S. Bach’s Bouree in E minor. This is one of the most famous classical guitar pieces, suitable for advanced beginners. George and Paul both attempted unsuccessfully to learn Bouree as kids. It has really beautiful counterpoint and the melodies and basslines are usually moving in opposite directions. Blackbird shows some characteristics of Bouree in its oppositional bass and melody structure, but Paul also throws in a Celtic drone, handily using the open G (third) string on every chord. Bach would never have done that. McCartney plays a Martin guitar, and sings in a plaintive, choirboy sort of voice. The vocal is doubled on the chorus. Recordings of real blackbirds are added as sound design. Rhythmically, this is one of the most complex Beatle tracks, the time signature is all over the place, shifting from 2/4 to 3/4 to 4/4. Tricky. The only controversial sound is the click track. I’ve always thought it was a metronome in the left speaker. It is completely isolated from the guitar sound. Wikipedia says the click track is Paul tapping his foot. But then there would be guitar leakage on the foot tapping sound, making the guitar out of phase. The guitar is not out of phase.
Wikipedia is wrong.