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The Beatles Songs: Blackbird

The history of this classic Beatles song

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The Beatles Songs: Blackbird

A rare jukebox-only blue vinyl 45 of "Blackbird" issued in the '90s

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Blackbird

Written by: Paul McCartney (100%)
(credited to Lennon-McCartney)
Recorded: June 11, 1968 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: October 13, 1968
Length: 2:18
Takes: 32

Musicians:

Paul McCartney: lead vocals (double-tracked), acoustic guitar (1967 Martin D-28), foot tapping

Available on: (CDs in bold)

The Beatles (a/k/a "The White Album"; UK: Apple PMC 7067-8; US: Apple SWBO 101; Parlophone CDP 7 46443 2; CDP 7 46444 2)

History:

  • The history of "Blackbird" - essentially a Paul McCartney song, written and performed by him alone - is one of the more nebulous in Beatles lore. Some sources claim the song was written in India, inspired by an actual blackbird singing outside Paul's window; indeed, the song shows up, nearly intact, on the "Kinfauns" demos made at George's Esher home in late May 1968. Paul let this perception stand for years before claiming that the song was composed at his farm in Scotland. When, shortly after returning from Scotland in September 1968, he invited photographer Linda McCartney to his London home for the first time, fans outside his home heard him playing the song to them while sitting in a window.
  • Folk singer Donovan, who taught John the finger-picking style of guitar that he would later use on "Julia" and "Dear Prudence," among other tracks, was with the band during their spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968, and while he didn't recall the song being played there, it was his guitar style that he claims was an inspiration for "Blackbird." Paul, on the other hand, cites a well-known Bach piece called "Bourree in E minor," written for lute but often played on acoustic guitar, as the main inspiration; the contrapuntal bass-and-melody arrangement was apparently what got the song going. (Further muddying the waters, John claimed to have given Paul "a line" of the song, usually thought to be the very Lennonesque phrase "take these broken wings and learn to fly." McCartney has never acknowledged this.)
  • Although the song has been often interpreted as a metaphor for race relations and the civil rights struggle then underway by African-Americans in the US, for decades McCartney kept silent on such a reading, perhaps because notorious cult leader Charles Manson read the song as an invitation to an outright race war. However, the "civil rights struggle" interpretation persisted, and Paul eventually began claiming it as truth. (It's worth noting that Paul later recorded a similar solo song called "Bluebird" which had no such metaphor attached to it.)
  • The recording of "Blackbird" was as simple as possible. Paul entered Studio 2 on June 11, 1968, and ran through the song 32 times to get it just the way he wanted, accompanying himself only on acoustic guitar and his feet tapping for rhythm (recorded by a mic placed near the ground). After a slight bit of vocal double-tracking, the song was complete. During the recorded rehearsal, Paul also made a very bluesy dry run of "Helter Skelter" as well as a short, improvised song called "Gone Tomorrow, Here Today" that was never officially released. Meanwhile in Studio 3, John gave an interview and finished assembling the tape loops that would eventually form the basis of "Revolution 9."

Trivia:
  • Although the rhythmic sound in "Blackbird" is often misattributed to percussion or a metronome, it is indeed Paul's feet - his "White Album girlfriend" Francie Schwartz attests to this, and there's footage of Paul with her in the studio performing the song just that way.
  • Perhaps adding weight to Donovan's claim, he and Paul ran through "Blackbird" during sessions for Apple protege Mary Hopkin's debut album Post Card in late 1968. McCartney performed "Blackbird" several times during his solo career: first as part of a medley in the one-time-only ATV/ABC special James Paul McCartney, broadcast in 1973, then during his 1974 Nashville sessions, as well as in an unreleased film of Paul's, The Backyard, shot at around the same time. It was part of the set list during his 1974 tour of Australia, his famous "Wings Over America" tour of 1976, his 1991 appearance on the MTV series Unplugged, on his 2002 world tour, and was performed during an "Earth Day" concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1993.
  • The blackbird sounds that enter during the middle of the song and are heard again at the end were taken from the Abbey Road Studios' vast library of sound effects; they were recorded by studio engineer Stuart Eltham in his back yard in 1965. As with so many Beatles songs from this era, the effects are slightly different in the mono mix, featuring extra bird sounds from the same source mixed in at different parts of the song. Adding to the song's mythology, Paul has also claimed to have woken up one morning after the song was recorded to hear an actual blackbird outside his window, singing a melody very like that of his tune.

Covered by: Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Diamond, Phish, Sarah McLachlan, Desmond Dekker, Dion, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Collins, Billy Preston, Carly Simon, Herb Alpert, The Waterboys, Bobby McFerrin, Jaco Pastorious, Dick Hyman, Jose Feliciano, Rick Wakeman, Chris DeBurgh, Bernadette Peters, Cassandra Wilson, Collin Raye, Adrian Belew, Ramsey Lewis, Dave Koz, Micky Dolenz, The Chieftains, Harpers Bizarre, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, The Doves, Justin Hayward, Mary McCaslin, Catherine McKinnon, Kenny Rankin, Moose Jones, Terri Lynn Carrington, Tony Williams, Dionne Farris, Mary McCaslin, The King's Singers, Beachfront Property, David Cassidy

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