Behind the Civil Rights Message Of “Blackbird” by The Beatles

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Though The Beatles had many overt protest songs, notably “Revolution,” another song that is just as politically charged, though you wouldn’t know it upon first listen, is “Blackbird.”

The delicate track features a single guitar line with only Paul McCartney crooning out the lyrics over top. Every so often, a few chirps from a bird can be heard as a nod to the song’s opening refrain blackbird singing in the dead of night.

However, this song has nothing to do with ornithology and is instead a commentary on the ongoing Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. Let’s dive into the meaning of the song’s lyrics below.

Origin and Production

McCartney cites the moment Little Rock, Arkansas, schools decided to desegregate as a driving force behind the song. Sitting in his kitchen in Scotland, McCartney picked up his acoustic guitar and began to flesh out the simple tune.

“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.'”

Only three sounds were tracked for the final recording: McCartney’s voice, his Martin D-28, and tapping that keeps time on the left channel. The origin of the tapping is a bit of a mystery, although in The Beatles Anthology video McCartney appears to be making the sound with his foot. The bird sounds were later overdubbed from the collection at Abbey Road Studios.

Behind the Lyrics

The lyrics as a whole are very symbolic. Playing on a hidden meaning of the word “Blackbird,” McCartney references The Little Rock Nine – the brave Black students that stood in face of racism by attending a formerly all-white school (more on this later).

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

McCartney uses a repeated opening line for each verse, beginning with Blackbird singing in the dead of night. He then switches out the lyric, praising the students for enduring despite their broken wings and sunken eyes.

He finishes off the verses with another refrain, acknowledging the struggle for equality they have been fighting their entire lives, waiting for their moment of freedom to arrive.

The Little Rock Nine

Nine Black students drew national attention in 1957 when they enrolled at a formerly all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, which was ratified by the Supreme Court just a few years earlier.

The court’s decision ruled that segregation in public high schools was unconstitutional, seemingly paving the way for racial equality across the country – although Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus didn’t see it that way.

Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the Black students – Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls – from entering the school.

Later that month, federal troops were brought in to escort the students, drawing international recognition of the Civil Rights Movement – notably McCartney.

McCartney met two of the women, Mothershed and Eckford, at his Little Rock concert on April 30, 2016. He took to Twitter after the meeting to say, “Incredible to meet two of the Little Rock Nine–pioneers of the civil rights movement and inspiration for Blackbird.”

Cover Versions

Many novice guitarists have plucked along to McCartney’s iconic guitar trill since its release, cementing its integral place in music history.

Covers of the pervasive song have cropped up around the decades, keeping, arguably, one of McCartney’s best writing efforts alive.

Everyone from Sarah McLachlan to Billy Preston has lent their voice to “Blackbird” at one time or another but the only cover version that made it to the charts was a Glee Cast recording in 2011.

Crosby, Stills & Nash gave a similarly honeyed version of the song in their 1991 box set. The group performed the cover live often, notably during their set at Woodstock Festival in 1969.

Photo: Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

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