The Beatles song Paul McCartney wrote about the civil rights movement
Paul McCartney is one of the most gifted songwriters pop music has ever known. As part of The Beatles and beyond, Macca has always found a way of tapping into the collective consciousness of his audience. While he has never been an artist intent on creating deeply political or socially aggressive work, McCartney has always managed to reflect the life and time of the world around him in his music—and one track is particularly poignant.
Written shortly after McCartney, alongside John Lennon and George Harrison, returned from studying under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India, the song ‘Blackbird’ found a home on The Beatles album known as The White Album and has since become a shining piece of the band’s iconography. On it, McCartney says he was trying to offer words to Black women struggling in America, in particular, words which “encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.”
Although it approached the huge and wide-ranging subject of the civil rights movement, it started out with humbler beginnings and can be traced back to McCartney and Harrison’s childhood music lessons. Based on a piece by Bach from his composition Bouree in E Minor, it was a section of music that he and Harrison had practised on guitar, “Part of its structure is a particular harmonic thing between the melody and the bass line which intrigued me,” revealed McCartney to Barry Miles on Many Years From Now. “Bach was always one of our favourite composers; we felt we had a lot in common with him… I developed the melody on guitar based on the Bach piece and took it somewhere else, took it to another level, then I just fitted the words to it.”
Musically, the song is very intriguing. It using some different time signatures which can make the very simple sounding track (just Macca and an acoustic guitar) feel extremely textured. The phrase “blackbird singing in the dead of night” operates on a 3/4 signature while the large parts of the remaining song are either 2/4 or 4/4, meaning this track is far beyond the simple ditty it appears. Lyrically, the song holds far more than it first appears too.
With so much of The Beatles lyrical output flitting between deeply personal expression and wide-ranging a-political motifs, it would be more than easy to think of this track as a simple song about a bird. If you’re sniggering right now, then let us turn your attention to songs like ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Octopus’ Garden’ which both land with a heavy dose of irreverence. However, ‘Blackbird’ had a more than potent message than it first seemed.
The song was inspired by the ongoing civil rights movement in America at the time with the term ‘blackbird’ said to have referenced Black women who were facing oppression at the time: “I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird. Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, 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.’”
Adding: “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 reference has since been seen as a little derogatory but in the context of The Beatles’ work, and especially Paul McCartney’s whose writing wasn’t as visceral as Lennon’s, it stands out as a moment of defiance and political drive. The track has since become one of the band’s most cherished songs and has been widely covered and featured in many of McCartney’s live sets since. But nothing will beat the first time he played the song live.
McCartney had written the song after returning from India and was staying in Scotland. He scribbled down the track as a solo acoustic number and pocketed it. Shortly afterwards, his then-girlfriend Linda Eastman, soon to be his wife, stayed over in his London home for the first time. Naturally, as there often was, a group of fans were huddled outside waiting for a glimpse of the babyfaced Beatle and, perhaps as a way of showing off, Macca decided to give an impromptu performance of his new track.
“A few of us were there. We had the feeling something was going to happen,” remembered fan Margo Stevens who was speaking to Philip Norman in his book Shout!. “Paul didn’t take the Mini inside the way he usually did – he parked it on the road and he and Linda walked right past us. They went inside and we stood there, watching different lights in the house go on and off.”
The story wouldn’t end with the lowliest light show of all time. “In the end, 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 window sill with his acoustic guitar and sang ‘Blackbird’ to us as we stood down there in the dark.”
We can’t imagine a more magical feeling than that one but listening to ‘Blackbird’ will help get you somewhere close.