It is impossible to rationally explain what makes a song iconic. Sometimes the lyrics, other times the melody or the interpretation. Most of the time, it is the magical combination between lyrics and music that invades hearts and minds across the planet. It extrapolates its origins, when it is one of those classic masterpieces.
The word “classic”, attributed to concert music, means exactly that: the song that transcends time, remains as impactful today as when it was created. Here, don’t be shocked, Bach and Beethoven coexist with Pixinguinha and Tom Jobim, Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
And when we look at more or less contemporary songs that have shined in the last half century, Black birdthe naive and romantic song composed and recorded by Paul McCartney in 1968, it is a kind of classical masterpiece sung, played, reinvented by billions of people on the planet.
It is nothing new that since the beginning of his fulminating career, Beatles They acknowledged in interviews their debt to black music, repeating that they were inspired by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Shirelles and other R&B giants. But the simple musical structure and lyrical verses evoking a bird flying free in Black bird have nothing to do with black music.
But not, as the recently released book shows Blackbird: how black musicians sang the Beatles into Being- and sang back to them ever after (272 pgs., Penn State University Press, December/2023, no Brazilian translation available), by Katie Kapurch and Jon Marc Smith, professors at the University of Texas.
He breaks down the powerful repercussion of the song in the universe of North American black music, which transformed it into an icon of the civil rights movement from the 1970s onwards.
Very well based on solid research, it starts from interviews with black musicians to tell a new story, that of the “transatlantic flight”, to characterize a back-and-forth dialogue shaped by black musicians in the United States and elsewhere, including Liverpool.
Kapurch and Smith weave a lineage that goes back to the origins of North American popular music, involving the original blackbird (black bird) of the 20th century. There they studied the singer Florence Mills, who in 1926 enchanted Europe with the show Blackbirdsand the King of the Twelve Strings, Leadbelly.
The flight includes Nina Simone (who wrote with Sacker and recorded a song called Black bird in 1963), Billy Preston, Jimi Hendrix (Night Bird Flying). Even the incredible singer Bettye LaVette, 77 years old and with a raspy voice, who takes on the persona of the black bird in her extraordinary performance of Paul’s song on the album Blackbirds (2020, Verve), adding an “s” signaling these wonderful flights.
Careful, the book does not state, but induces the reader to feel that Paul McCartney was an opportunist. He retold the story of the song’s conception several times and slowly, over the years, built the narrative that it was a gesture of solidarity with the struggle of African Americans.
It is worth reproducing Katie and Smith’s response in full here, in an exclusive interview with Estadão: “We wrestle with these questions in the book, so it’s not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ McCartney’s current narratives about Black bird position him as a civil rights actor during the 1960s, but he was not involved in the movement at that time. Over the years, however, McCartney has used Black bird as a means of addressing current events, as we also discuss in the book.”
Regardless of the song’s origins during the 1960s, McCartney uses his current stories about ‘Blackbird’ to signal his solidarity with BlackLivesMatter [”Vidas Negras Importam”] in the USA in the 21st century.
And they add: “Only recently, in his book The letters [960 pgs, Ed. Belas Letras, R$ 749,90]McCartney connected Black bird to Liverpool’s history as a slave port. In the entry “Blackbird”, he brings together many stories related to race that he has told about music over the years.”
“Still, this is complicated: although Liverpool’s links to the slave trade did not inspire Black birdMcCartney’s reference illuminates an important historical truth about the city’s association with slavery and the slave trade.”
The ‘Trope’ of ‘Flying Africans’
The book is a welcome product of the application of academic research criteria to music. Musicology has lived too long confined to concert music. In recent decades, a sophisticated package of concepts and tools has been essential for new perspectives on popular music. For example, Katie and Smith use “Transatlantic Flight” from the “trope” of “Flying Africans”.
To put it terribly simply, a trope is an umbrella concept that makes us see seemingly isolated facts and creations in an innovative way. They explain: “’Flying Africans’ is a ‘trope’ that black scholars have theorized to talk about folklore, both stories and songs, featuring the liberating escape of enslaved black people in the Americas.”
“This folklore also includes references to birds, especially black birds, and is influenced by African folklore. Theories about the Flying Africans trope, along with other theories of Black Atlantic and Afro-Atlantic flight, have influenced our concept of ‘transatlantic flight’. ‘Transatlantic flight’ is a phrase we use to talk about the triangulation of musical and artistic dialogue between artists from Europe, the Americas and Africa”.
It can be said that Black bird Was it reinvented by black African-American artists? Did they set it up as a mirror of their condition in the New World? “Black artists, in the US, the Caribbean and elsewhere, have interpreted McCartney’s song in a way that centers blackness, along with issues of gender, sexuality and political engagement with civil rights.”
“For example, Bettye LaVette sings Black bird taking a first-person perspective, turning the song into an anthem for her decades-long perseverance as a singer. We suggest that Black bird it is an ’empty’ song because it can be used in different ways depending on who sings it. This symbolic availability means that the song is also very ‘rich’: the broad applicability of the metaphor is the reason why it has been covered by so many black artists, as many of them revealed to us in interviews for the book.”
At a certain point during the interview with EstadãoKatie and Smith talk about McCartney’s partnerships with Stevie Wonder (Ebony and Ivory1982) and with Michael Jackson (Say, Say, Say, 1983). Was it a conscious intention on the part of the singer to continue surfing something that might be called “romantically conceived racial integration”, for easy consumption by the general public?
“No”, they say, emphatically. “His ‘post-racial romanticism,’ as we called it in a previous post, is a part of McCartney’s broader artistic spirit, which is sunny and positive.”
Below, a playlist that confirms the ability to Black bird to provide different performances and fit in admirably at each moment, as in the recent BlackLivesMatter . Perhaps because no other animal like the bird in its flight is capable of representing the concept, feeling and emotion of being free. And in the case of Black birdthe color of its black feathers also suggests suffering, pressure and repression.
This range of “uses” that the song allows can be seen in the performances below:
- Paul McCartney Throughout the Years at 3′41: 1968, 1973, 1976, 1991, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2018, and 2022