This lovely song, clearly a Paul McCartney composition, is on the Beatles’ White Album (1968), which has some great stuff (“Goodnight,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “I Will,” “Back in the USSR,” and the underappreciated “Martha My Dear”) but also some dreck ( “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,”and especially “Revolution Number 9″, which ranks just above “Octopus’s Garden” as the worst Beatles song ever).
But back to the sublime. I like to present live performances whenever possible, but those are rare on YouTube for this group, and the Beatles stopped performing live during the last part of their career together. Here’s an older but still great McCartney doing “Blackbird.”
Rolling Stone ranks this as #38 on the list of Greatest 100 Beatles Songs. It was recorded by McCartney without the others; as the site notes:
McCartney recorded “Blackbird” on his own. Harrison and Starr were in California (where Harrison was being filmed for Ravi Shankar’s movie Raga), and Lennon was in a different studio working on “Revolution 9.” McCartney has said that the fingerpicked guitar lines of “Blackbird,” written at his Scotland farm soon after he returned from India, were loosely based on Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor,” which he and Harrison used to practice in their early years. The blackbird heard on the track was from a sound-effects collection. “He did a very good job, I thought,” McCartney joked. “He sings very well on that.”
After he’d run through the song a number of times, McCartney told engineer Geoff Emerick that he wanted the song to sound as if he were singing it outdoors. “Fine,” Emerick said, “then let’s do it outdoors” — and they relocated to tape “Blackbird” outside Abbey Road Studios’ echo chamber.
McCartney gave the first semipublic performance of “Blackbird” to a group of fans outside his Cavendish Avenue home. “Paul opened the window and called out to us, ‘Are you still down there?’” one of them recalled. “Then he sat on the windowsill with his acoustic guitar and sang ‘Blackbird’ to us, standing down there in the dark.”
The song is about civil rights, and Wikipedia gives some details, including a transcript from an interview with McCartney:
I had been doing poetry readings. I had been doing some in the last year or so because I’ve got a poetry book out called Blackbird Singing, and when I would read “Blackbird”, I would always try and think of some explanation to tell the people, ’cause there’s not a lot you can do except just read the poem, you know, you read 10 poems that takes about 10 minutes, almost. It’s like, you’ve got to, just, do a bit more than that. So, I was doing explanations, and I actually just remembered why I’d written “Blackbird”, you know, that I’d been, I was in Scotland playing on 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.
— Paul McCartney, Interview with KCRW’s Chris Douridas, May 25, 2002 episode of New Ground (17:50–19:00)
Also, before his solo acoustic guitar set during the Driving USA Tour, McCartney explained that “bird” is British slang for girl, making “blackbird” a synonym for ‘black girl’. Near the end of the song’s performance, a young black woman sang the lyrics, “You were only waiting for this moment to arrive, blackbird fly…”, after which the program faded to commercial.
One more tidbit:
The instrumentation consists of tapping, guitar, vocal and birdsong overdub. The tapping “has been incorrectly identified as a metronome in the past”, according to engineer Geoff Emerick, who says it is actually the sound of Paul tapping his foot, which Emerick recalls as being mic’d up separately.Footage included in the bonus content on disc two of the 2009 remaster of the album shows McCartney tapping both his feet alternately while performing the song.
You can see that video, with the foot-tapping, here.
I have a vague feeling I’ve posted this song before, but I’m not going to check, for it’s worth hearing again (and again. . . ).