Paul McCartney was a sponge for music. Growing up with a jazz musician father, McCartney was exposed to different genres before eventually finding his own calling in rock and roll. Learning by ear, the young Paul would play music hall and classical numbers on the family piano, instilling a lifelong love for melody.
When he befriended schoolmate George Harrison in the late 1950s, the two would try to impress people with a rendition of Bach’s Bourrée in E minor, a piece that required intervals and string jumps rarely found in traditional rock music. “One of the things we had was a kind of party piece, just occasionally to show people we weren’t as thick as we looked,” McCartney joked during Choas and Creation at Abbey Road. “We played a little piece, and it was by Bach. The thing we liked about it was that it had a melody line and a bass line going at the same time.”
McCartney explains that he and Harrison were actually playing the piece wrong, but the mistake wound up influencing the creation of a new song, ‘Blackbird’. Featuring on the band’s gigantic record known simply as The White Album, the song acts as a moment of refrain and acoustic clarity on the LP thought of as The Beatles returning to their rock and roll roots.
“There’s nothing to the song,” said McCartney in 1968, referencing the lack of production the band had become famous for. “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!”
“The original inspiration was from a well-known piece by Bach,” Macca confirmed in 1994, “which I never know the title of, which George and I had learned to play at an early age– he better than me actually. Part of its structure is a particular harmonic thing between the melody and the bass line which intrigued me… I developed the melody based on the Bach piece and took it somewhere else, took it to another level, then I just fitted words to it.” The two pieces both share the simultaneous bass and melody runs, while the fact that McCartney didn’t learn the Bach piece properly meant that he could easily take the wrong part and adapt it into a song of its own.
McCartney also acquiesced that Harrison had learned the piece better than he had, illustrating Harrison’s advanced abilities at a young age. But where McCartney had looked to the past for the melodious inspiration, he used the world around him to form the lyrics as he opened dup the world to the ongoing civil rights struggles. “I had in my mind a black woman, rather than a bird,” he said of the lyrical composition. “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.'”
You can watch McCartney explain the story starting at the 37:45 mark in the video down below.