Blackbird

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 11 June 1968
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, acoustic guitar

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)
Anthology 3
Love

A solo performance by Paul McCartney, Blackbird was composed shortly after The Beatles' stay in Rishikesh, India, and featured on the White Album.

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The song was written on McCartney's farm in Scotland. Shortly afterwards, on the first night his future wife Linda Eastman stayed at his house in London, McCartney performed the song to the fans waiting outside the gates.

A few of us were there. We had the feeling something was going to happen. Paul didn't take the Mini inside the way he usually did - he parked it on the road and he and Linda walked right past us. They went inside and we stood there, watching different lights in the house go on and off.

In the end, the light went on in the Mad Room, at the top of the house, where he kept all his music stuff and his toys. Paul opened the window and called out to us, 'Are you still down there?' 'Yes,' we said. He must have been really happy that night. He sat on the window sill with his acoustic guitar and sang Blackbird to us as we stood down there in the dark.

Margo Stevens
Shout!, Philip Norman

McCartney has claimed that the music was inspired by Bach's Bouree in E minor, which he and George Harrison had learned to play at a young age.

Part of its structure is a particular harmonic thing between the melody and the bass line which intrigued me. Bach was always one of our favourite composers; we felt we had a lot in common with him... I developed the melody on guitar based on the Bach piece and took it somewhere else, took it to another level, then I just fitted the words to it.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The music of Blackbird features a number of time signature changes. The phrase 'Blackbird singing in the dead of night' is in 3/4, while much of the remainder of the song switches between 4/4 and 2/4.

The lyrics were inspired by the civil rights movement in America; the 'blackbird' of the title was said to represent a typical woman facing oppression in the era.

I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird. Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: 'Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.' As is often the case with my things, a veiling took place so, rather than say 'Black woman living in Little Rock' and be very specific, she became a bird, became symbolic, so you could apply it to your particular problem.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

In the studio

McCartney recorded Blackbird alone on 11 June 1968, with just a guitar for accompaniment. It was taped in Abbey Road's studio two, while John Lennon worked on Revolution 9 next door in studio three.

McCartney recorded 32 takes of Blackbird, only 11 of which were complete. The final attempt was the best, and onto this McCartney double tracked his vocals in places, along with a second guitar part.

Sound effects from Abbey Road's library were also added to the four-track recording, towards the end of the session.

I taped that on one of the first portable EMI tape recorders, in my back garden in Ickenham, about 1965. There are two recordings, one of the bird singing, the other making an alarm sound when I startled it.
Stuart Eltham, engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Take four of Blackbird was included on 1996's Anthology 3 album. This version transposes the final verse with one of the "Blackbird fly, into the light of the dark black night" sections.

41 responses on “Blackbird

  1. Michael

    “Blackbird was inspired by the fingerpicking guitar style learned by The Beatles during their stay in Rishikesh, India, which features on many of the White Album’s songs.”

    That is not true.
    Unlike Lennon’s songs like Julia etc. this one has a completely different picking style. McCartney didn’t learn Donovan’s style like Lennon, so he didn’t use it.

    1. Joseph Brush

      According to Donovan, Paul looked over John’s shoulder and watched John work out Donovan’s style on guitar. According to Donovan, Paul learned this style of playing guitar by watching John.

  2. Tory

    The style of picking that Lennon used was called “Travis Picking” after the country musician Merle Travis. It is used in drop D tunings. I thought I read that McCartney used somewhat of a hybrid with only the forefinger and thumb. I never knew “Blackbird” was in double drop D. I’ll have to give it a shot!

  3. Michael McRae

    I play the whole song on the inside 4 strings, with the “A” (5th string)dropped to a “G”. It has always sounded better to me that way, especially on the ascending part (“Take these broken wings and learn to fly”), with the ascending bass on the 5th string, and the high part staying on the 2nd string. The tone just sounds better than switching the high part back and forth from the 2nd to the 1st string. And, the fingering is much easier.

    1. Niemand

      I play it on the inside four strings, but do use the 1st and 6th strings occasionally, but I don’t drop anything (no jokes about dropped notes please!), and it seems pretty much the way Paul does it. When I get time, I will make a video and upload it. I’ve seen Paul play this song live on video and each time he has not followed the structure of his studio recording (he misses out “Blackbird fly” for example).

  4. Paul

    I have read that the tapping noises on this song were made from either Paul tapping his foot on the ground or from him gently tapping a drumstick on a snare drum.

  5. MeanMrColonelMustard

    Intriguing idea, McCartney playing this song in double dropped-D. I don’t really see much support for it, though. When he plays it in live settings, he uses standard tuning (at least, I have yet to see him do anything other than this). It would seem strange to me that he used one tuning for the record, but appears to favor another tuning for live performances.

  6. max moose

    I have never been to this site before …it’s great!

    I “shot” my own run-through of Blackbird
    guitar part tonight on my Nano, will upload it to youtube.com tomorrow. I have no idea if it’s bad form to include links to your own videos here, or name your channel; somebody clue me in.

    I had to go back and listen to the White Album in headphones to get the strum on “Blackbird,” but it seems like thumb and forefinger (then reverse), in between base notes. Sir Paul is pretty strict on this thru most of the studio version — with the metronome going, not quite so much in newer live versions.

    I was surprised to hear the double-tracked guitar part; the doubled vocals were expected. In concert it seems like
    he usually has a second guitarist playing along.

    I missed him in Miami last night, but I have seen him in the same stadium before. My feedback is he was great as usual.

    The drop-D idea doesn’t seem feasible to me for either E-string, but I do play a lot of Beatle Tunes in drop-D.

    1. Joe Post author

      Hi Max. Glad you like the site :)
      I’m happy for people to post links to relevant videos, as long as it’s not just spam (that’ll get zapped). Let us know your Blackbird url and I’ll have a watch.

  7. max moose

    Thanks Joe, I appreciate that timely and hospitable response.

    For the strummers, I put “Blackbird” out there:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_oGJJ6tBtw

    I also put “Here Comes the Sun” out there, but in a finger-picked version in Drop D:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCI03k2_6cE

    or channel name = “maxmoose10″

    Info from the Miami Paul concert 2 nights ago: he played for 3 hours without a break, and was very youthful.

    Supposedly, he stayed close to the original versions of songs. From what I can gather, Blackbird was not done with the very slow tempo that has marked some live performances.

    I prefer the livelier tempo for it.

  8. aldo

    i have learned a new (probably exciting) fact that the name “Lennon” is based on Irish language, and the name meaning is “Blackbird”! this brings a whole new dimension of interpretation to the song i think! :D

    1. John

      I know, I just discovered that myself, McCartney may of have written the song about Lennon as well. At the time, he wasn’t doing good with the drug usage

  9. Niemand

    I never believed Paul was accompanied by a metronome when I heard the song, and my “suspicion” was confirmed when I saw some footage of the recording session a few months ago on a Beatles tribute programme: Paul is wearing a special pair of shoes, not tap-dance shoes – almost like clogs. Listen with an open mind to the recording and I think you will find it’s not a metronome – is there testimony from any of the people present that it is?

      1. frank

        This is so obvious, how can there be any doubt? those are tap shoes, and they zoom in to show thats exactly what it is, your rite niemand, great video!!!

        1. George

          Hi guys, first post from me on this excellent website.
          If you look closely at Paul’s shoes in the video you might recognize them. I have read that they are the actual red and yellow shoes from his Sgt Pepper uniform. It would seem he recorded Blackbird wearing them! Cool or what??

  10. ed

    I read in guitar world the tapping is a Metronome & in this same issue they had a picture of his Metronome & Paul playing his guitar to it. And they were pictures from 1968.

    1. Niemand

      I’d like to see the article. Another reason I don’t think it’s a metronome is because at one point there is ritardando in the song, which leads to a complete stop. If Paul was playing along to a metronome then someone would have to slow down the metronome and stop it for him, and know when to do it, and how much to slow it down, and then know when to start up again. It doesn’t make sense. Tapping feet to it means Paul can control the tapping as he plays, and stop and restart when necessary.

  11. Von Bontee

    It’s never sounded like a metronome to me at all either – I’ve never heard such a thing. Any musician who’d been playing (whether in a band or solo) as long as Paul would surely have a superior sense of time and no need for such a thing.

  12. Robert

    I believe Paul uses standard tuning – when I’ve seen him play Blackbird live he didn’t switch acoustic guitars as he went from one acoustic song to another.

    The tapping is his foot – there’s a video of it – it’s clearly foot taping.

  13. max moose

    I mentioned above that I play this on a youtube video, (channel = maxmoose10) but perhaps I didn’t notice the technical debate above. My view: McCartney was never a finger picker that I can think of, but typically wrote songs such as “Yesterday” around a thumb and forefinger strum. This song is no different. I am not sure why many people seem to get this wrong. If you remember to observe the steady on-the-beat playing of a bass note by the thumb, and follow each bass note with a strum of thumb=up, forefinger down, then reverse after the next bass notes, you should have no trouble sounding authentic. It would pictorially look sort of:

    TB — T — F – TB — F – T —

    It’s easy, but requires a fluent, natural rhythm in the alternating timing of the strums. Sir Paul varies the moves of thumb and forefinger to write other songs such as “Mother Nature’s Son,” but this type of strumming seems very natural to him.
    A somewhat more recent example would be “Calico Sky” on the Flaming Pie album.

    Remarkably, many “professionals” seem to get this wrong. The worst attempt I have ever seen is on a video by a former editor of an acoustic guitar magazine. The guitarist from the Foo Fighters (?) makes an awful mess of it on youtube as well. Ironically, many absolute amateurs on youtube get it right, and there are some pretty good versions on youtube.

    For my two cents, you are best off to keep this simple and natural in the physical practice of the bass note and alternating strum, and not over-complicate it. The explanation is a lot more involved than the actual playing.

    I should add to the above, for the sake of clarity that many of those bass notes described above are accompanied by a melody note, often on the second string. So McCartney is typically pinching two strings, often 2 anbd 5, with the strumming in the appropriate measures. That’s about as close as he gets to finger-picking — perhaps more akin to elementary classical guitar in this case. Remember that the guitar part is essentially a simplified Bach bouree with the strumming and singing interweaved. McCartney often credits Bach’s Bouree in E minor as the inspiration for the guitar part. Note that Jethro Tull had a hit in the late 60?s with a syncopated instrumental version of the same piece, led by Ian Anderson’s flute.

    1. fotofantom

      I once read an interview of Paul (not sure where – might have been in the Rolling Stone cover story a few years ago) where he said he couldn’t do the Travis picking that John learned from Donovan, so he did his own version, which works quite well in this excellent tune. Max, thanks for illustrating his technique. I could never get it down, though I do play a version of the song that’s very similar in technique to Paul’s.

  14. TimE

    I don’t remember where I heard this but I thought the tapping was a fault in the demo record of the album. During playback Paul said to keep it in there and it was a happy accident…I’m probably way haha

  15. Vince

    I heard a version of Blackbird where Paul sings a verse, and then during an instrumental section, someone whistles like a bird (instead of the sound effects) hilariously. Could someone reply and tell me what recording it’s on?

    1. BobV

      His entire guitar is tuned down by one note in the Wings video — still standard tuning, but every string lowered by one whole note. So he is playing/singing in the key of F instead of the usual G. Using “Drop D” tuning (DADGBE) for this song does not make much sense; the lowest string is used only a few times in the whole song.

  16. Finn Bjerke Psykolog

    Yesterday is played with guitar tuned down one full step, Live McCartney plays Blackbird and Yesterday on the same guitar which is as far as I can hear tuned down. Alas Blackbird is in F but played (offcourse) using G-shape chord. I am reffering to Rockshow (Full Concert) with Wings youll find it on youtube. Conclusion its palyed in G on the Beatles LP but sometimes in F live using a guitar tuned down one full sted. “Ram” is also played usaing a guitar tuned one full tone lower ..

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