Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Why did Paul write "Blackbird?"

I spent this past Saturday night with Paul McCartney.   Alright---myself and an arena full of others in Little Rock, Arkansas, spent three hours with him while he performed.    And, of course, one of the songs he sang was the always beautiful "Blackbird."  

Before he performed the number, he told the crowd that the "Little Rock Nine"  introduced him to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  He went on to state, "It's a really important place for us because this is, to me, where civil rights started.  We would see what was going on and sympathize with the people going through those struggles, and it made me want to write a song that, if it ever got back to the people going through those struggles, it might just help them a little."

Paul also met backstage with the two living members of the "Little Rock Nine" either before or after the concert.    He tweeted, ""Incredible to meet two of the Little Rock Nine — pioneers of the civil rights movement and inspiration for 'Blackbird,"

Paul with two ladies from the Little Rock Nine

All of this is nice and very emotion-filled, but while he was talking, I couldn't help but think, "what---this can't be right..."   That afternoon, before the concert, I went to the museum for the Little Rock Nine.     I learned that on September 4, 1957, nine African-American children between the age of 14-17 attempted to go to what had been an all-white school, Central High.   They were stopped by the Arkansas National Guard, who had been called in by the state's governor to stop the children from attending school.   Three weeks later, in the middle of hate and death threats, the U.S. President called for the army to escort these brave students to school so that they could get an education that was equal to white students their own age.  Not only does the city of Little Rock honor them with a museum but also with a bronze statue on the grounds of the Capitol building. 

Little Rock Nine Statue.  Photo by Sara Schmidt 

So what was Paul McCartney doing in September of 1957?    The 15-year-old McCartney was a student in Liverpool.    Two months prior, he met John Lennon and agreed to join the Quarrymen.   He was learning more about playing the guitar and starting to write a few tunes of his own.   He was NOT writing the song "Blackbird" at that time.   While there is no doubt that he saw the news about what was happening in Little Rock on the telly in England, as it was spread Internationally, he did not write a song to encourage those nine students during the time it was going on. 

When did Paul write "Blackbird?"    He might have written it during his time in India between February-March 1968.   One story states that he was sitting with his acoustic guitar while in India and heard a blackbird singing, and he began to write the song.   This is the story Paul told in the early days.     Another story states that he wrote it during the Spring of 1968 while on his farm in Scotland after hearing about all of the racial strife in the United States that Spring.  This makes sense because Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968, and racial riots and turmoil were happening in the following weeks.   This is the story Paul started to tell in 2002 after his book, Blackbird Singing, was released.    Of course, it isn't too far-fetched to believe that Paul started the song in India and it was simply about a blackbird and came back to it a few weeks later in Scotland after seeing the news from America and adding more lyrics. 

To throw a wrench into things, Angie McCartney, Paul's stepmother, says he wrote the song for her mother, Edie.    Paul had gone to Angie and Jim's home, where Angie's mother had been staying, and she was elderly and not doing well.   She had told Paul that she couldn't sleep and was listening to the birds singing in "the dead of night."   Paul recorded "Blackbird" and said on one of the takes (that Angie claims to own), 'This is for Edie.'    Again---this doesn't seem to contradict things too much for me.   Maybe Edie told Paul about her sleeping problems and the birds singing while he was working on the song and made a recording for her.   

So if Paul wrote the song partially about a literal blackbird and partially about racial tension in the United States in 1968, then why did he tell us at the concert that it was about Little Rock?    I found a quote from Barry Mile's authorized biography on Paul, "Many Years From Now," that might clear that up:  

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.

So as you see, he specifically recalls thinking of the town of Little Rock as the place where a fictitious Black woman lives.  Most likely, he recalls this particular town because it was one of the first news stories of Civil Rights that he personally remembered because of the story of the Little Rock Nine.  

However---I think it is a bit of a stretch to say that Blackbird was "inspired by the Little Rock nine."  Maybe indirectly inspired.   But nonetheless---I think with most Beatles songs, it is difficult to pinpoint just one reason why it was written.    Their songs are complex and weren't always written in one sitting.

By the way, do you know the first time Paul performed "Blackbird" to an audience?   It was the day Linda moved into Cavendish.    Paul opened the window to his house and called out to the girls waiting outside the gate, asking if they were still there.    They were, and he played to them, in the darkness "Blackbird" to see what they thought of it.  


  1. The story I always heard was evening more far-fetched than all of this was Paul had been speaking to Diana Ross she was very upset and wanted to leave the group The Supremes so in England they call women Birds Diana being a blackbird who sings telling her to take these broken wings and Learn to Fly I read it in one of the books and I have that that's what he was thinking at that time it's hard to know now because he's had to recall so many things and he is older I know the concert for George I specifically heard him say that he and George were playing ukuleles one day out in the front of George's yard and I came out with this song and then he started to play something which made me feel as if he may have written the song Something or had a lot to do with it but probably just let George have it I listened and watch the video a few times to make sure that he said it he's not the type that would take a song Back from somebody who has earned it so it might have just been a slip but he did say it the word I meant himself so who knows it's a beautiful song and it can be taken many ways as many Beatles songs have been a man broke into John Lennon's property they found him sleeping and hiding in the bushes and brought him out they brought him to John they have it on film they asked him what was going on he said he wanted to know how you knew what was going on in his head that all the songs seem to be written for him personally John continued to tell the man I write songs for myself and what goes on in my life but if it helps you or anybody else that's all good for you Danny off at the man something to eat asked him if he was hungry and had him come in and eat with them the songs meant different things to every person there are so many different stories too many to count of why this was written who wrote it what it was about I know Paul wrote I'll follow the sun when he was 14 that is fact there are a few that I know that are fact but mostly it is hard to figure out what is truth and what is Mystery anyway that's a completely different story I heard of the Blackbird song sorry to confuse you more this was a very good question and I love the fact that you brought it up

  2. I have an even stranger version supposedly in 1968 Paul had been at a party with Diana Ross she was very upset that the group The Supremes were breaking up and obviously in England women are called Birds so blackbird singing in the dead of night take these broken wings and Learn to Fly because Paul had told her she would probably do better on her own something to that effect I do not have that book anymore I would love to cross-reference that I know I did read it and then according to that book that is where he got it from but they are always changing their stories to either make them more interesting or to include more people John Lennon once had gotten broken into they found a man walking around in his yard and brought him to John there is film of this and John is asking him questions like why are you at my house and the man tells him that he wanted to know if John had been writing all those songs for him personally which one replies well no most songs I write about myself or I write about people that are around me the man even says the song Hey Jude and John immediately says well that's Paul but it's also about me or you or anybody so John is basically saying that whatever way you interpret any of their songs as long as it makes you feel good or better or change you for the good then it's all right then he invites the man in to have breakfast water guy I wish I was there anyway that's the story I got for blackbird I do know for a fact that Paul wrote I'll follow the sun when he was 14 and that there are suggestions if you watched the concert for George that Paul made have written the song Something because he has a ukulele in his hand and steps up to the microphone talking about a story of him and George sitting in front of George's house in the yard playing ukuleles and he specifically says then I started to play this I played it back a few times because I wanted to make sure it sounds as if Paul had something to do with writing the song Something but probably like John or Paul did a lot he probably said you can finish it or you can have it if George said I really like that bit that's the way they were you can check it yourself the concert for George where Paul sings something with the ukulele listen to his little speech before you will hear him say I he may not have even recognize that he said it and he would not be the type to brag and act as if it was his song they would never do that to each other this is a very good story and I have never heard any of this maybe this story got around they showed up and he did not want to disappoint them so he decided to change the story a little who knows the man is 75 usually what I will do is read several books and cross reference to figure out which books say the same things so I can figure out what was probably the truth and which parts were fiction some books are crap and some very well written by people who were actually there it has been so long sometimes even they have to be reminded of what they said sorry to confuse you more but I really like the story and thought I would add my little to bits on

  3. The 'Edie' version you mention re: Angie McCartney is the take of the song that Paul performed at Abbey Road from Wings days - I think around 1974. It first appeared on the bootleg album "Watching Rainbows".