Paul McCartney wrote this about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after reading about race riots in the US. He penned it in his kitchen in Scotland not long after an incident in Little Rock when the federal courts forced the racial desegregation of the Arkansas capital's school system.
"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 recorded: Paul's voice, his Martin D-28 acoustic guitar, and a tapping that keeps time on the left channel.
This tapping sound is a bit of a mystery, although in the Beatles Anthology video McCartney appears to be making the sound with his foot. Some sources have claimed it is a metronome.
The birds were dubbed in later using sound effects from the collection at Abbey Road, where the song was recorded.
McCartney did not have ornithological intentions when he wrote this song. In England, "bird" is a term meaning "girl," so the song is a message to a black girl, telling her it's her time to fly:
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
The guitar accompaniment for this song was inspired by Bach's Bourrée in E minor for lute. This is often played on classical guitar, an instrument Paul McCartney and George Harrison had tried to learn when they were kids. McCartney told Mojo magazine October 2008: "We had the first four bars (of the Bourrée in E minor) and that was as far as my imagination went. I think George had it down for a few more bars and then he crapped out. So I made up the next few bars, and (sings his four-note variation Bach's theme) it became the basis of 'Blackbird.'"
This is one of the songs novice guitar players often try to learn, as it's one of the most famous finger-style tunes. The singer Donovan claims some credit for teaching The Beatles a technique similar to the one McCartney used here when they were on a retreat to India in early 1968.
The word "bird" had been floating around Paul McCartney's musical lexicon since 1958 when the Everly Brothers had a hit with "Bird Dog," a song about a guy trying to steal another dude's girl. McCartney was a huge fan of the Everly Brothers.
There have been hundreds of covers of this song. Perhaps the most enduring is Brad Mehldau's instrumental jazz version, released in 1997. The only charting version of the song was by the Cast of Glee, which took it to #37 in 2011. Other notable covers include renditions by José Feliciano, Billy Preston, Sarah Vaughan, Jaco Pastorius, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bobby McFerrin and Dwight Twilley. The Doves did a cover in 2002 for the soundtrack to the TV series Roswell.
The singer-guitarist Kenny Rankin recorded it for his 1974 album Silver Morning. McCartney was a big fan of Rankin's rendition: when the Songwriters Hall of Fame induced Lennon and McCartney in 1987, McCartney skipped the ceremony but had Rankin accept the award on his behalf and perform "Blackbird."
The "broken wings" concept had been fluttering about for a while, notably in Kahlil Gibran's 1912 story The Broken Wings
. (The Beatles song "Julia
" uses lines from one of Gibran's poems, but McCartney has never cited him as an influence on "Blackbird.") In 1985, the American group Mr. Mister released their #1 hit "Broken Wings
," which was directly inspired by The Broken Wings
and like "Blackbird," used the line, "Take these broken wings and learn to fly."
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl told Q magazine that he feels this is the greatest Paul McCartney song. He commented: "It's such a beautiful piece of music, perfect in composition and performance, and in its lyrics and in the range of his voice. Just learning that song made me a better guitar player and gave me a better appreciation of songwriting. To me it's just musical bliss."
At the Academy Awards ceremony in 2016, Dave Grohl performed this song to accompany the "in memoriam" segment, recognizing those in the movie industry who died the previous year.
This is one of about 12 Beatles songs that McCartney often played in his live shows throughout his career. It lends itself to live performance because it is rather compact (it runs just 2:18) and can be played with just a guitar.