The Beatles song ‘Blackbird’ is an utterly sumptuous effort and arguably one of Paul McCartney’s finest hours. However, underneath the track’s beauty is a powerful message that sticks two fingers up at those who were trying to oppress the Black community and support those fighting for the civil rights movement.
The Second World War saw black people fight side by side with white people and, following these torturous few years, there was a growing societal shift as people tried to achieve equality — a fight one could argue is still going on today. McCartney watched this from afar in the UK, but one moment from this civil rights battle made headlines worldwide and stuck with the Beatle for years. In 1957, nine black students in Little Rock enrolled a previously exclusively white school.
The only crime committed by these brave nine students was attempting to have the same education they would be entitled to if they had a different skin colour. The civil rights movement wouldn’t ‘officially’ end until 1968 when the state brought in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In that same year, McCartney penned ‘Blackbird’, a song which many mistook for being about a literal animal rather than understanding the double meaning of the word bird meaning girl in Britain. It remains one of his most poignant moments, but it is even more moving once you understand the backstory.
Mccartney once explained: “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.’ 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.
“I was sitting around with my acoustic guitar, and I’d heard about the civil rights troubles that were happening in the ’60s in Alabama, Mississippi, Little Rock in particular,” he later told GQ. “I just thought it would be really good if I could write something that if it ever reached any of the people going through those problems, it might give them a little bit of hope. So, I wrote ‘Blackbird.'”
Two members of the Little Rock Nine were Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair. Almost sixty years after they cemented their place in the history books, they met Paul McCartney backstage at his concert in Little Rock in 2016 and were in the crowd to watch the former Beatle dedicate ‘Blackbird’ to them.
When McCartney introduced ‘Blackbird’ he passionately told the audience, “Way back in the Sixties, there was a lot of trouble going on over civil rights, particularly in Little Rock. We would notice this on the news back in England, so it’s a really important place for us, because to me, this is where civil rights started.
“We would see what was going on and sympathize with the people going through those troubles, and it made me want to write a song that, if it ever got back to the people going through those troubles, it might just help them a little bit, and that’s this next one.”
Although Paul McCartney isn’t a particularly political songwriter, ‘Blackbird’ proves that he’s always been on the right side of history. However, there’s nothing about wanting equality that is a political move; it’s a fundamental right every human should have. The Beatles were the biggest band on the planet and by 1968 had transcended music. Their voice held a great deal of societal significance. Therefore, McCartney aligning the group with the civil rights movement could only help bolster those fighting the good fight.
Check out the performance from 2016, below.