Behind The Civil Rights Message Of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’


Although the Beatles had many overt protest songs, including “Revolution”, another equally politically charged song, although you wouldn’t know it on first listen, is “Blackbird”.

The tricky track features a single guitar line with only Paul McCartney singing the lyrics over it. Occasionally, a few chirps of a bird can be heard as a nod to the song’s opening chorus. blackbird singing in the dead of night.

However, this song has nothing to do with ornithology and is more of 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 Manufacture

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

“I was sitting with my acoustic guitar and I had heard about the civil rights unrest that was happening in the ’60s in Alabama, Mississippi, Little Rock in particular,” he told GQ. “I just thought it would be really nice if I could write something that, if it ever reaches one of the people who are going through these issues, it might give them some hope. So, I wrote “Blackbird”.

Only three sounds were tracked for the final recording: McCartney’s vocals, his Martin D-28, and the 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 then layered from the Abbey Road Studios collection.

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 who stood up to racism by attending a once all-white school (more on that later).

Blackbird singing in the middle of the night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
Your whole life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the middle of the night
Take those sunken eyes and learn to see
Your whole 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 middle of the night. He then changes the lyrics, praising the students for enduring despite their broken wings and sunken eyes.

He ends the verses with another chorus, acknowledging the struggle for equality they have waged all their lives, waiting for their moment of freedom to arrive.

The little new rock

Nine black students came to national attention in 1957 when they enrolled in a once all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their presence at school was a test of Brown v. Board of Educationratified by the Supreme Court a few years earlier.

The court ruling ruled that segregation in public high schools was unconstitutional, seemingly paving the way for racial equality across the country – although Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus did not see it from this way.

Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to stop 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, attracting international recognition for 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, “Amazing to meet two of the Little Rock Nine, pioneers of the movement of civil rights and inspiration for Blackbird.

Cover versions

Many novice guitarists have played McCartney’s signature guitar trill since its release, cementing its integral place in music history.

Covers of the ubiquitous song have cropped up over the decades, keeping arguably one of McCartney’s best songwriting efforts alive.

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

Crosby, Stills & Nash gave an equally bland version of the song in their 1991 box set. The band often performed the cover live, most notably during their set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

Photo: Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.


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