Paul McCartney has been impossibly prolific over the course of his 60-year long career, and barely a year has gone by without some sort of McCartney tune making it onto the airwaves. And although the bassist isn’t known for polemical anthems, he has used his art on a handful of occasions to celebrate the virtues of the world. There was his vision of an Ireland free from British rule (‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’); there was his view of a world free from racial hatred (‘Ebony and Ivory’); and then there’s his pastoral tune ‘Blackbird’, cut during the middle of The Beatles most ambitious, but most protracted, album.
Although The Beatles recorded a number of tunes alone, they were also capable of realising tunes without their bandmates. “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 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.’”
The bassist wrote a tune of great yearning and endless possibility, but it was the central lick that stood out. It was a song of great heritage and integrity, stemming from a chord McCartney learned from his youth playing across from George Harrison. As a teenager, he whiled his time away playing J.S. Bach ‘Bourrée’ as a way of showing off to the public. Ten years later, he returned to the hook in an effort to open his heart out into the world at large, creating a metaphor of racial segregation in the country far beyond the Irish seas. His heart was ready for change – maybe it was time for the world to do so too?
Change traditionally comes from reflecting upon the triumphs and tribulations of childhood, and McCartney’s adolescence in Liverpool was spent listening to and writing music, coming up with enthusiasm to compensate for his lack of classical training. But he was certainly the most overtly musical member of The Beatles, happily singing the most complex harmony vocals, creating many of the album’s most indelible hooks, before going on to enjoy the most profitable career of any solo Beatle.
And yet the power of the song doesn’t stem from the mountain of countermelodies that swam behind The Beatles’ strongest recordings but in the lyrical content which stands among the strongest of his career. The tune is rich with imagery and works almost as well as a poem as it does as a song, standing among the best lyrics George Harrison – the most accomplished lyric writer in The Beatles – released.
McCartney’s words rarely matched Harrison’s or John Lennon‘s, but it’s fair to say on this occasion he managed it, creating a world of loneliness and lingering, yearning for the chance to take flight in a world that would rather keep a person grounded. All it takes from a person is the chance to cast off the shackles their leaders laid out for them, and escape the prisons of the mind.
The tune remains one of McCartney’s strongest works, having accrued several covers, some of them radically different in their presentation (Hozier‘s slower, more waltz-like rendition is a personal favourite of mine). José Feliciano, Billy Preston, Sarah Vaughan, Jaco Pastorius, Bobby McFerrin and Dwight Twilley put their truth on the song. The track might have inspired Mr Mister’s ‘Broken Wings’ (the lyrics are strikingly similar), and the tune inspired David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to record a cover of their own. True, it lacks the connection to Bach, but the trio embellished the song with their own infectious style of harmony singing. And it’s very, very good.
“A song by our favourite group,” Graham Nash wrote on a collection of liner notes. “We were staying on Moscow Road in London in 1968, hoping to get onto the Apple record label. The Beatles were recording The White Album, and when we heard McCartney do ‘Blackbird’ we flipped and learned it right away. It was perfect for our three-part harmony.”