Paul McCartney's Civil Rights Song: Blackbird
Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” competes with Lennon’s “Julia” as the most tender song on the Beatles’ White Album and maybe in the band’s entire catalogue. Inspired by a Bach piece that McCartney and George Harrison learned to play when they were young, its finger-picked acoustic guitar has the sound of a folk lullaby. But the song’s shifting time signatures and delicate melody make it something of a tricky one: recording sessions at Abbey Road involved a series of 32 takes, most of them false starts and only 11 complete. The version we hear on the album is the final take, finished while Lennon worked on “Revolution 9” in the studio next door.
You can see 1:33 of that session in the footage above, captured on 16mm by a film crew from Apple Records directed by Tony Bramwell, part of a 10-minute promo that also included footage of McCartney recording “Helter Skelter” and “various other scenes from inside the studio, in the Apple Boutique, Apple Tailoring, McCartney’s garden and other locations,” the Beatles Bible notes. It’s an ephemeral document of time passing peaceably during the gruelling 5-month White Album sessions, which for all their legendary tension and rancour, included many moments like these.
The three-day ordeal that was the recording of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (after which engineer Geoff Emerick quit) provides stark contrast, and maybe confirmation that the Beatles were at their best when they worked separately in 1968. The brief film above also confirms a more technical recording concern: the ticking we hear in the studio track is not a metronome, but Paul’s feet alternately tapping on the wood studio floor to measure out the bars of the complex song, which shifts between 3/4, 4/4, and 2/4 time. “Part of its structure is a particular harmonic thing between the melody and the bass line which intrigued me,” he remembered, and we see him striving to get it right.
The first public performance of “Blackbird” took place in October 1968 and came as something of a surprise for those girls (later immortalized in George Harrison’s song “Apple Scruffs”) who hung around outside The Beatles’ homes, studios, and offices. As fan Margo Stevens later recalled, Paul McCartney and his new girlfriend, Linda, had just passed through the imposing gates outside his home in leafy St Johns Wood, just a few minutes’ walk from Abbey Road. “The light went on in the Mad Room, at the top of the house, where he kept all his music stuff and his toys. Paul opened the window and called out to us, ‘Are you still down there?’ ‘Yes,’ we said. He must have been really happy that night. He sat on the windowsill with his acoustic guitar and sang ‘Blackbird’ to us, standing down there in the dark.”
The Civil Rights origins of the song
The song had been born out of a style of playing Bach on the guitar that Paul and George had both enjoyed showing off since they were teenagers. It was written on Paul’s Scottish farm: “I was in Scotland playing my guitar and I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It’s not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know. It’s a bit more symbolic!”
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, in Memphis, in April 1968, brought the ongoing civil-rights movement to a head. “Blackbird,” like John Lennon’s “Revolution” and George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” was written in response to the seeming chaos of what would come to be remembered as a year of demonstration, death, and despair. “Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about,” Paul said, “so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.’ As is often the case with my things, a veiling took place so, rather than say, ‘Black woman living in Little Rock,’ and be very specific, she became a bird, became symbolic, so you could apply it to your particular problem.”
The stripped-back production
One of the big differences between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and “The White Album” is in the relative restraint shown when it came to the orchestral arrangements on the latter – and Paul’s “Blackbird” is the perfect illustration of this. Two days before “The White Album”’s release, Paul spoke to Radio Luxembourg’s Tony Macarthur at his Cavendish Avenue home. When Macarthur commented that he had been expecting another step from Sgt Pepper, Paul replied: “Well it is another step, you know, but it’s not necessarily in the way people expected. On Sgt. Pepper we had more instrumentation than we’d ever had. More orchestral stuff than we’d ever used before, so it was more of a production. But we didn’t really want to go overboard like that this time, and we’ve tried to play more like a band this time, only using instruments when we had to, instead of just using them for the fun of it.”
Talking specifically about “Blackbird,” which was recorded on June 11, he elaborated: “Maybe on Pepper we would have sort of worked on it until we could find some way to put violins or trumpets in there. But I don’t think it needs it, this one… It is just one of those ‘pick it and sing it’ and that’s it. The only point where we were thinking of putting anything on it is where it comes back in the end… sort of stops and comes back in… but instead of putting any backing on it, we put a blackbird on it. So there’s a blackbird singing at the very end. And somebody said it was a thrush, but I think it’s a blackbird!”
After the Beatles, McCartney made “Blackbird” a regular part of his set, playing it at nearly every concert from 1975 on. It wasn’t only the beauty of the song that has moved him all these years, but its inspiration, the Civil Rights movement, which “all of us cared passionately about,” he said. “Blackbird” is “symbolic, so you could apply it to your particular problem,” but the song’s intended message, he said, was “from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.’”
Below you can watch McCartney talk about the story behind “Blackbird” in a 2005 production called Chaos & Creation at Abbey Road.