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"BLACKBIRD"

(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)

If you are a Beatles fan and are a guitarist, as many are, and happen to have an acoustic guitar with you when with a group of friends, what do you think the likelihood is that someone will ask you to play "Blackbird"?  I would think the liklihood is pretty damn high!

What first appeared as a simple but impressive solo acoustic Paul track on the “White Album” has ended up becoming one of the most popular signature pieces of his entire career. Apart from “Long Tall Sally,” it was one of the first Beatles songs that McCartney decided to perform live during his 1975/1976 “Wings Over The World” tour. Then, from 2002 onward, “Blackbird” has become a fixture in his set lists, the song getting a rousing reception after every performance on every tour he's done since. For such a delicate acoustic piece hidden away as the eleventh track on a double-album, a song that never was a charted hit, it's been said to have become one of the top ten most covered songs of all time.  Not bad, Paul.


Songwriting History

Shortly after returning from India where he was learning the art of Trancendental Meditation with the other Beatles, Paul wrote "Blackbird" while at High Park Farm in Kintyre, Scotland in April of 1968.  Both the melody and the lyrics have specific inspiration behind them.

Concerning the melody, Paul explains in his book “Many Years From Now”: “The original inspiration was from a well-known piece by Bach, which I never know the title of, which George and I had learned to play at 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. Bach was always one of our favorite composers; we felt we had a lot in common with him. For some reason we thought his music was very similar to ours and we latched on to him amazingly quickly. We also liked the stories of him being the church organist and wopping this stuff out weekly, which was rather similar to what we were doing. We were very pleased to hear that. 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.”


The piece of music that Paul referred to above has been identified as J.S. Bach's Bourree in E minor. Paul elaborated about this a little more during a 2014 interview at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. “You often did things just as party pieces, things to show off, literally, at a party. You know, 'Hey girls...', you know, you would do that. Unfortunately, none of them bothered, you know. But there was a thing that George Harrison and I used to do which was, we thought it was Bach's piece. It was kind of the beginning of a Bach piece, but nobody knew any better, so it was like...(plays Bach introduction). See, that sounds like Bach. It goes on; I don't know where it goes. It goes down a rabbit hole. So I took that and I made it...(plays 'Blackbird' introduction)...and that became the beginning of 'Blackbird.' So, you know, you'd take these little discoveries and kind of just move them around a little bit to suit you because it was something you loved.”

As for the lyrics, Paul relates: “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."  During Paul's "Driving USA" tour, he would introduce the song by saying that the term "bird" was British slang for "girl," so in essence the song was about a "black girl.”

In a 2002 radio interview with KCRW's Chris Douridas, Paul elaborates a little more about the lyrical meaning of the song: “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.”

“This is one of my themes: take a sad song and make it better, let this song help you. 'Empowerment' is a good word for it. Through the years I have had lots of wonderful letters from people saying, 'That song really helped me through a terrible period.' I think that the single greatest joy of having been a musician, and been in The Beatles, is when those letters come back to you and you find that you've really helped people. That's the magic of it all, that's the wonder, because I wrote them with half an idea that they might help, but it really makes me feel very proud when I realize that they have been of actual help to people.”

Some accounts through the years tell of Paul in India waking up one morning, hearing a blackbird, picking up his Martin acoustic guitar and writing the song on the spot. While this story has been generally assumed for years, Paul's quotes, as indicated above, need to be considered as the established fact. He should know...he was there!

It has also been insinuated that the lyrics of "Blackbird" were inspired by the poem "Broken Wings" written by Khalil Gibran, first published in 1912.  Since the poem tackles many issues of the time in the Eastern Mediteranean, such as the rights of women and religious corruption, it appears likely, on the surface, that Paul may have been influenced by this writing given that its title played a substaintial role in the lyrics.  Nonetheless, this has never been validated.


Most assume that this “Lennon/McCartney” composition was actually written entirely by Paul himself. However, in his 1980 Playboy Magazine interview, John claims otherwise. “I gave Paul a line on that one, an important line, but it's really all him. Paul is good at that kind of guitar thing. So is John Denver.” The identity of the “important line” has never been revealed. And the comparison to John Denver is assumed to have been a compliment.


George Harrison at 'Kinfauns,' circa 1968
Recording History

The first time "Blackbird" was committed to tape was on May 29th, 1968, this being one of many demo recordings made at George Harrison's 'Kinfauns' home in Esher, Surrey on an Ampex four-track machine.  This recording consists of Paul on acoustic guitar and vocals, both double-tracked, with a slight bit of bird sound effects courtesy of John in the background.  The structure of the song hadn't been settled on yet and the ending was different than we know it now, but the lyrics were all in place at this point.

Paul was proud enough of “Blackbird” that it was the first McCartney composition he brought into EMI Studios for their new album. It was the fourth “White Album” song to be started but the first to be completed, since it was completely recorded in one day, this day being June 11th, 1968. Documents show the session beginning in EMI Studio Two at 6:30 pm.


Engineer Geoff Emerick, in his book “Here, There And Everywhere,” recounts the events of this day as well as the atmosphere present during “White Album” recording sessions: “The Beatles – who clearly didn't like being in one another's company anymore – were able to split up into small groups, working simultaneously in two or even all three of the studios in the Abbey Road complex. This soon became standard operating procedure for much of the rest of the 'White Album.' It was as if the four band members were so much in separate spaces personally, they wanted to make their record in separate spaces physically. On those evenings, I would normally work with Paul, because I had the best rapport with him. Another engineer would accompany John or George Harrison, with the taciturn (and rarely consulted) Ringo shuttling between studios as he was needed. That was the situation on the night that we worked on Paul's first contribution to the album, the poignant ballad 'Blackbird.'”

Emerick continues: “Neither Ringo nor George was present on that particular evening, and John wanted to begin compiling sound effects for what would ultimately become 'Revolution 9,' so as soon as he learned that another studio was available, he decided to head off with (producer) Chris Thomas and Phil (McDonald) – accompanied, as usual, by Yoko. That left George Martin and me alone with Paul, which came as a blessed relief to me after all the stress of the preceding sessions; it always was a lot easier to deal with one Beatle.”

“Playing his left-handed acoustic guitar, Paul began running the song down, and I loved it immediately. Perfectionist that he was, he performed it over and over again, trying to get the complicated guitar part right all the way through. At one point a cameraman appeared to do a little filming for an Apple promo, and that interrupted the flow a little bit, but Paul just carried on, with his new lady friend sitting cross-legged at his feet. Paul had recently broken up with Jane Asher, and that might have been another reason why he was so subdued during the 'White Album' sessions...I suppose it's possible that Paul invited the girl along as an answer to John bringing in Yoko. But in contrast to Yoko, she didn't stay long, and George Martin had to leave early, too.”

The Apple promo film clearly shows Paul rehearsing “Blackbird” repeatedly, making mistakes along the way but clearly bringing it to perfection as he progressed. During the beginning of this filmed segment, on the floor off to Paul's right is the woman mentioned above. This was Francie Schwartz, Paul's current girlfriend, very soon to be replaced by Linda Eastman who would become his wife shortly later. In the film, George Martin walks over to converse with Paul during these rehearsals which appears to be an annoyance to Paul who continues his rehearsals of the song despite George's interruption. George Martin apparently left for the evening shortly after this moment in the film.

Emerick then relates: “After they'd gone, Paul remarked to me that he wanted the track to sound as if he was singing it outdoors. 'Fine,' I said, 'then let's do it outdoors.' He looked surprised, but there was a little spot outside of the echo chamber with just enough room for him to sit on a stool. I ran a long mic lead out there and that's where we recorded 'Blackbird.' Most of the bird noises were dubbed on later, from a sound effects record, but a couple of them were live, sparrows and finches singing outside the Abbey Road studio on a soft summer eve along with Paul McCartney.”

Once official recording began in this unique location, Paul recorded 32 takes of the song with just himself on acoustic guitar and vocal along with his tapping feet which were specifically miked by Geoff Emerick at Paul's request.  Emerick, in the book "Recording The Beatles," explains how the tapping on the finished recording "has been incorrectly identified as a metronome in the past," evidence of Paul's foot tapping during the playing of the song easily being seen in the Apple promo film shot on this day.  Only 11 of these takes were complete, take 4 being one of these which eventually appeared on the compilation album “Anthology 3.” Upon examination of this take, we can see that Paul was still experimenting with the structure of the song as well as nuances of the performance itself. One other complete take from this day, which has surfaced on bootleg recordings, show Paul ending the song just after the beginning of a verse with the lyric “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.....” and then asking Geoff Emerick “What do you think, what do you think?” Take 32 was the keeper, however, Paul then double-tracking his vocals during the refrains.

Mark Lewisohn, in his book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” explains the one final overdub recorded on this day: “There was one other addition to the four-track tape: chirruping blackbirds, courtesy of 'Volume Seven: Birds Of Feather,' from the Abbey Road taped sound effects collection, the doors of the trusty green cabinet already being open during this evening for raidings by John Lennon. 'I taped that on one of the first portable EMI tape-recorders, in my back garden in Ickenham, about 1965,' recalls Stuart Eltham. 'There are two recordings, one of the bird singing, the other making an alarm sound when I startled it.'”

Paul explains the desire to have this sound effect on the song: “The only point where we were thinking of putting anything on it was where it comes back in at the end – stops, and then comes back in. So, instead of putting any backing on it, we put a blackbird on it, so, there's a blackbird singing at the very end. Somebody said it's a thrush, but I think it's a blackbird...He did a very good job, I thought. He sings very well on that.”

But why not make a bigger production of the song? Paul explains: “It's simple in concept because we couldn't even think of anything else to put on it. Maybe on 'Pepper,' we would have worked on it until we could find some way to put violins on it, or trumpets. But, I don't think it needs it. There's nothing to the song. This is just one of those pick-it-and-sing-it songs. It doesn't need anything else in the backing because, as a song, there's nothing to it.”

Before this session was over, six attempts of the mono mix were made in the control room of EMI Studio Two by Geoff Emerick, although none of these were used on the released record. By 12:15 am, the session was complete.

A simple tape copy of 'remix mono 6' of “Blackbird” was made in the control room of EMI Studio Two on August 27th, 1968, this being considered the finished mono mix of the song at this time. This tape copy, along with three other tape copies made on this day, were taken away by roadie Mal Evans, no doubt to be reviewed by The Beatles.

Both the stereo and mono mixes that were released to the public were made on October 13th, 1968, by George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith in the control room of EMI Studio Two. The stereo mix was done first, only one attempt being needed for both the stereo and mono mixes. The mono mix, for some reason, was designated “remix 10” even though only six mono mixes were attempted thus far. The only notable difference between the stereo and mono mixes is the placement of the bird sound effects, the mono mix leaving the blank space in the song completely quiet – quiet enough to pick up the sound of actual birds singing during Paul's outdoor performance.

Sometime in January of 1969, during the recording of Mary Hopkin's album “Postcard,” Paul and British folk singer Donovan, both of which performed on the album, were recorded singing and doodling on acoustic guitars while engineers were setting up equipment and adjusting the mix. Among the songs they ran through was “Blackbird,” Paul including a convincing blackbird imitation in between the vocal lines. He also stops the song at one point to explain to Donovan, “I sang the song to Diana Ross the other night – she took offense!...not really.”

Sometime in 1996, George Martin and Geoff Emerick returned to the master tapes of “Blackbird” to create a stereo mix of 'take 4' as mentioned above. This was included on the comilation album “Anthology 3” to give a clear perspective of how the song was recorded.

And then, sometime between 2004 and 2006, George Martin and his son Giles Martin worked with the master tape of “Blackbird” in order to combine a few instrumental segments with the master tape of “Yesterday,” this becoming the track “Blackbird””Yesterday” on the compilation album “Love.” The key of “Blackbird” was lowered so as to match the key of “Yesterday,” seamlessly splicing them all together to appear as if it was performed by Paul all at the same time. A masterful job.

Since Paul performed “Blackbird” live quite regularly throughout the years, many recordings have been made and surfaced on live albums. Sometime in May or June of 1976, a recording of the song was released on the album “Wings Over America,” while another version of the song that was recorded on June 14th, 1976 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California was included on a bonus CD in the Deluxe Edition Box Set of “Wings Over America.” On January 25th, 1991, Paul and his band performed the song on the MTV “Unplugged” show, this version appearing on his album “Unplugged (The Official Bootleg).” Then, sometime between April 1st and May 18th, 2002, “Blackbird” was recorded live for release on both “Back In The U.S.” and “Back In The World.” A recording of the song was made at Paul's June 27th, 2007 concert at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, California, this version appearing on the British and Irish release entitled “Paul McCartney Live In Los Angeles.” Another recording made at Citi Field in New York City sometime between July 17th ans 21st, 2009 made it onto the album “Good Evening New York City.”

Song Structure and Style

Since "Blackbird" was a solo performance, Paul took to experimenting with the structure of the song as he was recording it, various configurations being tried and abandoned before he settled on what we've come to view as the finished structure.  What he ended up with was the following:  'verse/ verse/ refrain/ verse (instrumental)/ refrain/ bridge/ verse' (or aababca).  Interestingly, Paul continues to deviate from this structure to this day, each live performance varying from the next with subtle lyrical differences as well.

As far as the official studio recording is concerned, the arrangement is the same throughout; Paul on acoustic guitar and single tracked vocals except during the refrains which has double-tracked vocals. His tapping feet are audible until the end of the second refrain just before the song ritards and stops momentarily, but then reappears on the bridge and continues until the song is near completion. During the momentary break, the blackbird sound effects kick in (they come in a little earlier in the mono mix) and reappear periodically throughout the rest of the song, the last blackbird being heard just after the song is completed.


The more complex feature of the song is the time signature changes that wind through the structure that Paul ended up using. For instance, a two-measure introduction begins the piece, which is actually an instrumental foregleam of the first two measures of each verse. The first of these two measures is in 3/4 while the second measure is in a standard 4/4 time, which is the primary time signature of the song. The first verse then follows, which is ten measures long, the first measure being in 3/4 time, measures two through four in 4/4 time, measure five in 2/4 time, and measures six through ten in 4/4 time. The final two measures (nine and ten) are actually an instrumental repeat of the previous two measures (seven and eight). Kapeesh?

The second verse is then heard which is the same by all accounts except that it is only eight measures long, omitting the final two instrumental measures heard in the first verse. Then comes the refrain which is five measures long, measures one through four being in 4/4 time while the fifth measure is in 2/4 time. The final lyrical line of the refrain (“into the light of the dark black night”) extends into the next section of the song, which is a fully instrumental verse eight measures in length as the second verse was.

The second refrain is heard next which is extended to nine measures in length. The first five measures are identical to the first refrain while measures six and seven repeat the introduction of the song but then extend the final high chord for two more measures of 4/4 while the song slows down to a glaring halt. When the song picks up again, we hear a section that is different from anything else heard in the song, which we'll call a bridge. This bridge is instrumental and consists of three measures, the first two being in 3/4 time and the third measure being in 2/4 time.

Paul then goes into the final vocal verse, which is lyrically the same as the first. However, with this being the final segment of the song, he extends it to twelve measures, repeating the final two 4/4 measures twice. This means we hear the lyric “you were only waiting for this moment to arise” three times in a row for emphasis. And that's that!

American Releases

The Beatles' highly awaited double-album entitled "The Beatles" (aka the "White Album") was released in the U.S. on November 25th, 1968.  "Blackbird" appeared as the third track on side two just after the indecipherable memblings of John Lennon at the end of "I'm So Tired."  The album got its first compact disc release on August 24th, 1987 and then a sonically modified CD version of the album was released as a 30th Anniversary edition on November 23rd, 1998.  A re-mastered version of the CD came out on September 9th, 2009 and the first mono vinyl release came out on November 9th, 2014.

In early 1969, Capitol released a five-song “Playtape” of songs from the “White Album” entitled “The Beatles Vol. II,” this song being one of these selections (labeled as “Black Bird”). This release was one of five tapes released to encompass as many of the songs from the album as possible for this short-lived format which, incidentally, ceased to exist later that same year.


Many fans may not realize that “Blackbird” did indeed get released as a single, as the B-side of a “For Jukeboxes Only” 45 on the Capitol Cema label on January 24th, 1996. The A-side was another “White Album” track, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the single being pressed on blue vinyl.

The above mentioned “Anthology 3” album, which featured Paul's solo recording of 'take four' of the song as recorded on June 11th, 1968, was officially released on October 28th, 1996.

The first appearance of the mono version of “Blackbird” in the U.S. was on the box set “The Beatles In Mono,” which contained the entire Beatles catalog as originally released in mono. This set was released on September 9th, 2009.

Also as mentioned above, the following U.S. Paul McCartney live albums contain versions of “Blackbird”: “Wings Over America” (released December 10th, 1976), “Unplugged (The Official Bootleg)” (released June 4th, 1991), “Back In The U.S.” (released November 11th, 2002), and “Good Evening New York City” (released November 17th, 2009).

Live Performances

What could rightfully be called the first ever performance of "Blackbird" happened at an estimated date of June 1st, 1968.  Apple Records Office Manager Alistair Taylor explains:  "The first time I ever heard 'Blackbird' was when Paul and I were walking up Abbey Road at about three in the morning, and he had his acoustic guitar on, swung over his shoulder on a piece of string...There were two fans following us as we got to the corner of Cavendish Avenue, where we stood under the gas lamp that was there.  Suddenly, he said, 'Hey, have a listen to this.'  He got his acoustic and he sang 'Blackbird' to me, and it was incredible!  It was marvellous!"

He continues: “Then, about six weeks later, he brought me an acetate and he said, 'There you go, that's that song I sang to you,' and it was awful! It was typical McCartney, beautiful and simple, in the way that he had done it, but, it was not the song he had sung to me. So, I told him this and he said, 'Oh, dear,' and he went away and he came back and said, 'I've redone it,' and he had put bird noises on it. Paul hates empty spaces on his songs. I said, 'Paul, you've got to be kidding!' It's still not right to this day.” That, of course, is his opinion.


About three-and-a-half months after this preview of the song to Alistair Taylor, Paul gave an impromptu performance of the song to some fans gathered outside his home on a warm September evening of 1968. These fans were affectionately referred to by the band as “Apple Scruffs,” a subject matter that George Harrison wrote a song about for his 1970 album “All Things Must Pass.” One of these fans was Margo Stevens who, with many others, would regularly congregate outside the Apple offices in Savile Row as well as Paul's home in St. Johns Wood.

This particular evening was quite eventful for more than one reason. This was the first night that Linda Eastman, soon to be Paul's wife, was invited up to London to stay at his house. “She arrived the night when we were doing 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun,'” Paul remembered in his book “Many Years From Now.” Since this song was recorded between September 23rd and 26th, 1968, we can deduce that this event happened on one of these nights.

In Philip Norman's book “Shout!,” Margo Stevens relates: "A few of us were there. We had the feeling something was going to happen. Paul didn't take the Mini (Cooper) 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. 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 windowsill with his acoustic guitar and sang 'Blackbird' to us, standing down there in the dark."

Paul never had an opportunity to bring “Blackbird” to a concert stage during his Beatles career since they had stopped touring well before the song was recorded. As a solo artist, however, Paul has continued to perform it regularly on tour. The following tours included “Blackbird” in their set lists: “Wings Over The World” (Sept. 9th, 1975 through Oct. 21st, 1976), “Driving World Tour” (April 1st through Nov. 18th, 2002), “Back In The World” (March 25th through June 1st, 2003), “2004 Summer Tour” (May 25th through June 26th, 2004), “The 'US' Tour” (Sept. 16th through Nov. 30th, 2005), “Summer Live '09” (July 17th through Aug. 19th, 2009), “Good Evening Europe Tour” (Dec. 2nd through 22nd, 2009), “Up And Coming Tour” (March 28th, 2010 through June 10th, 2011), “On The Run Tour” (July 15th, 2011 through November 29th, 2012) and his “Out There Tour” (starting May 4th, 2013).

Paul also performed "Blackbird" at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 17th, 2009, explaining before playing the song about its inspiration being the civil rights movement of the 1960's and commenting, "It's so great to realize so many civil rights issues have been overcome."


An impromptu performance of the song was at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida on October 23rd, 2014. Paul was invited by the two-term U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins to give an hour-long presentation in front of the students and faculty about his influences, his education, and the art of songwriting. At the conclusion of the interview, Paul was asked to perform a song, he opting to play “Blackbird” since he had earlier given his experience about how the song was written. The students' standing ovation afterward shows they must have enjoyed it somewhat.

Conclusion

In comparison to the production complexity of the "Sgt. Pepper" album, along with their other 1967 output, such a simple arrangement of Paul singing with his acoustic guitar alone seems lazy or, at best, a demo version of what would become something elaborate later.  With "Blackbird," this wasn't a demo - it was the finished product.  Did their fans feel gypped?

Other than Alistair Taylor's opinion noted above, nobody seemed to mind at all. In fact, the overall consensus was that the song had a refreshing simpleness inciting a feeling of being outdoors on a beautiful summer afternoon. For many, it typifies the feel of the entire “White Album,” case in point being an episode of the television drama “ER” that depicts the plight of a woman giving birth who insists on having the song “Blackbird” sung to her to calm her down during delivery. The hopeful message of the lyrics have proved to be influential as well, a more noteworthy example being the Grammy Award-winning #1 hit “Broken Wings” by the 80's band Mr. Mister.


As for appreciation for its striking simplicity, author John Robertson says it best: “McCartney's gently beautiful 'Blackbird' supported several interpretations, but required nothing more than appreciation for its flowing melody and its stark visual imagery...Paul never wrote a simpler or more effective song.”

Song Summary

Blackbird”

Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney

  • Song Written: April, 1968
  • Song Recorded: June 11, 1968
  • First US Release Date: November 25, 1968
  • First US Album Release: Apple #SWBO-101 “The Beatles
  • US Single Release: Capitol Cema # S7-18892
  • Highest Chart Position: n/a
  • British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7067-7068 “The Beatles
  • Length: 2:20
  • Key: G major
  • Producer: George Martin
  • Engineers: Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald
Instrumentation (most likely):
  • Paul McCartney - Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (1967 Martin D-28), tapping feet
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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