Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Beatles - Blackbird

“The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, because they wrote the best songs. Since both of these facts are true, The Beatles are rated properly.” – Chuck Klosterman – The Ten most accurately rated artists in rock history (Number 4)

The Beatles 1968 album “The White Album,” sometimes referred to as just “The Beatles," is kind of a big deal. It is the only double album The Beatles ever produced and arguably their most experimental. “The White Album” received mixed reviews from critics at the time, probably because some of the tracks were really bizarre and not in the fun playful “Magical Mystery Tour” way, and also the, dare I say progressive, styling of the album may have been so unexpected as to throw off music critics of the time. Regardless “The White Album” is now considered by some as the greatest album of all time, while I am more of “Abby Road” guy, it is impossible to deny “The White Album” as anything other than pretty freaking amazing.

While “The White Album” has a full roster of great songs to enjoy, sometimes the simplest songs are the best, or the least simpler songs can resonate with the listener the most. So while Charlie Manson may have thought “Helter Skelter” was about a race war (I have no idea how), and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is among Lennon’s most daring songs while “Revolution 1” is probably his most effective and memorable, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is probably the best song George Harrison ever wrote, I am very partial to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” It is a simple song, just Paul’s alone on guitar is all that it takes to perform the song; a nice short, simple guitar song right in the middle of a circus of psychedelic musical exploration.

It is a nice little poem of simple structuring where Paul sings:

“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.

Blackbird fly Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.”

Now the real question, is this song really about a bird or African Americans?

It would be the sort of thing for McCartney to do, write a song about a bird he saw in a tree in his backyard, something whimsical like that fits perfectly with many of the odd sort of songs McCartney created. On the other hand using a bird with broken wings finally recovering and being able to fly is a perfect metaphor for the American civil rights movement and it would hardly seem like a coincidence then the bird happens to be black. However political charged songs were more often Lennon's affair and this discourse becomes challenging because Paul has said many, sometimes contradicting things about the song over the years.

Other theories suggest the song is related to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," some people have taken the song to be a metaphor for death and flying is entering the afterlife, others thought it might tie into Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," which would relate itself back to the plight of African Americans, and lastly some thought it might have been a strange sort of love song, perhaps about someone finally finding it in them to move on after a rough breakup.

For many decade's Paul never gave a clear answer but in recent years he has all but confirmed "Blackbird" is about the civil rights movement, and more specifically the song is about a black woman, since bird was an old slang for woman. In 2002, McCartney had this to say:

"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."

Here is a video of Penn Jillette discussing his battle of understanding “Blackbird:”

There are two things about Penn Jillette's rant that I really appreciate. First the level of humility he is using approaching the topic, he does not pretend to have special insight into McCartney's mind and he is quick to admit that Beatles expert know a lot about the Beatles, I share his stance on this; Beatles experts are intense. Second I really enjoy his musings over the prose versus poetry, he discussed this better then I feel I could, but I feel it is worth drawing attention to, because if we were left to ponder over the mystery of "Blackbird" forever many of us would enjoy that. However it would appear from all recent remarks by McCartney "Blackbird" is about the struggle of African Americans during the 60s civil rights movement and you might think that would be the end of it but I am not entirely sure, and I suspect Jillette feels the same. Why would it take McCartney so long to openly admit the best possible interpretation of his song was correct one? Why would he have offered such small off handed explanation in the past?

Might I make a suggestion?

I think it might be possible that McCartney wrote a whimsical song about a literally black bird, but as time went on and people understandably loved the song and in turn over thought about it they began to suspect something more. Existing in the politically charged 60s and Charlie Manson somehow believing the entire "White Album" was about a race war, peoples' minds began to wander towards possible racial and political symbolisms within the "White Album" and a song named "Blackbird" seemed all too obvious. McCartney after years of hearing how great it would be if "Blackbird" was about the civil rights movement finally concedes and declares that is what he meant all along.

It is possible right? I mean why would a black woman's eyes be sunken eyes and she need to learn to see? Who would blame McCartney for changing his mind about his own song and accepting praise from involuntary genius? I mean Paul is so humble he never took credit for “Yesterday” and that was amazing, could we really hold it against him for claiming he meant for something brilliant all along that was in reality serendipitous?

The nicer cleaner theory is obviously that Paul is telling the truth, and I do not imagine any of us was to put the screws to Paul to figure out if he might possibly be misremembering or mixing up inspirations after the fact. Regardless either intentionally or quasi unintentionally McCartney has created a multi-dimensional song that is if not directly about the African American civil rights movement it is culturally.

Until next month keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves

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