Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: June 11, 1968 at Abbey Road
On an album that came to be known as the “White Album”, “Blackbird” might rightly be subtitled McCartney’s black song. This is because the tune is said to have been inspired by America’s racial troubles in the spring of 1968 — lyrics like “take these broken wings and learn to fly” can easily be applied to the African-American struggle at that time. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed four years earlier, banned discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations. There was also the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which restored and protected voting rights. Then in 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 passed, which banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. Yet despite all this progress, Martin Luther King was assassinated in April of 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots subsequently broke out in more than 110 cities across the United States in the days that followed. These hot spots included many major metropolises, such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. These birds may have been freed, so to speak, but their wings were broken by a gut-wrenching assassination and then trampled on the ground during angry riots.
But it wasn’t just King’s assassination that frustrated many African-Americans. African-Americans may have had their legal rights properly restored, but economically they were still down at the bottom rung. This is why Malcolm X’s aggressive — not passive — resistance found such a huge following. It’s also partially why the Black Panther Party came into vogue. Malcolm X preached “by any means necessary”, because civil disobedience simply didn’t finish the job. Certainly, one didn’t see white America crowding the ghettos in large American cities. Equal rights did not immediately lead to equal economic standing, which forced many winged ones to sing “in the dead of night”.
Against this backdrop of anger and pain, however, “Blackbird” is a beautiful song. If you listen closely to McCartney’s acoustic guitar finger picking on it, you can hear how Bach’s Bourrée in E minor inspired its melody. In fact, McCartney and Harrison tried to learn that Bach piece as kids in order to show off their budding guitar skills in front of of other aspiring musicians. Guitarists will immediately recognize how melody and bass notes are played simultaneously on the upper and lower strings, and how McCartney adapted a segment of Bourrée for the song’s intro. He also applies this musical motif throughout the tune.
While this lyric alludes to the Civil Rights Movement, it can be easily applied to almost any situation where somebody is struggling against the forbiding odds. At one point McCartney sings, “Blackbird fly / Into the light of the dark black night.” Even in the shadow of death, so to speak, there is always a glimmer of light. McCartney takes on the role of an encourager when he sings these words. Circumstances may be bleak, but he believes in this struggling one and wants to see him or her overcome.
“Blackbird” fit with its time, but it also attained a sort of timelessness. You don’t need to know McCartney’s original musical or lyrical inspirations to appreciate it. Furthermore, acts ranging from the Waterboys to Eddie Vedder have covered the song over the years. Clearly, its message has remained relevant, and its melody continues to move listeners. And to that we say fly, blackbird, fly.
— Dan MacIntosh
Primary Songwriter: Harrison
Recorded: September 19-20 and October 10, 1968 at Abbey Road
Even though Lennon was known as the political Beatle, Harrison proved for the second time in the Beatles’ catalog that he, too, had political chops with “Piggies”. The song, intoned as a humorous social satire of class dynamics, serves as the perfect follow-up to his scathing review of the British taxation system on Revolver‘s “Taxman”.
The delightful Baroque-influenced tune, featuring harpsichord and a four-piece string quartet, is a wonderful offset to the lyrical content, which on first listen is light enough in itself, but upon second glance shows its deeper meaning. Lyrically, Harrison’s Orwellian piggies are broken down into classes: the working class “little piggies” and the upper class/aristocratic/political “bigger piggies”. As life continues to get harder for the little piggies, the bigger piggies continue profiting and leading ever more extravagant lives:
Have you seen the little piggiesCrawling in the dirt
And for all those little piggies
Life is getting worse
Always having dirt to play around in.
Have you seen the bigger piggies
In their starched white shirts
You will find the bigger piggies
Stirring up the dirt
And they always have clean shirts to play around in.
And in their styes with all their backing
They don’t care what goes on around
And in their eyes there’s something lacking
What they need’s a damn good whacking…
Despite the difficulty the Beatles were going through during this time period, all four were involved in recording “Piggies”. Starr provided tambourine and McCartney purposefully went with a more plucking-style bass line to imitate the sound of pigs grunting. Lennon did not contribute instrumentally, although he helped with the tape-loop pig gruntings that were used throughout the song and recommended that Harrison change the final line from “Clutching their forks and knives to cut their pork chops” to “Clutching their forks and knives to eat their bacon”. The new play on words gave the bigger piggies an even darker tone; instead of just hurting their own, they cannibalize their brethren.
Harrison’s mother, Louise, also contributed to the lyrics, recommending the most violent of the lines — “What they need’s a damn good whacking” — when Harrison was looking for something that would work with the previous line, “In their eyes there’s something lacking”.
Surprisingly, the version that appears on The Beatles was not the song it in its entirety. Harrison’s final verse was left out of the studio cut and was only re-instituted in his concerts in the 1990s. The song, including the additional verse, can be heard on Harrison’s Live in Japan album:
Yeah, everywhere there’s lots of piggiesPlaying piggy pranks
And you can see them on their trotters
Down at the piggy banks
Paying piggy thanks
To thee pig brother.
Although Harrison never intended the song as anything more than humorous commentary, upon the album’s release in November 1968 many people took the lyrics to be an attack on the police thanks to the animal chosen to represent humanity in the song.
Unfortunately the song took on even more of a sinister tone in August 1969 when Charles Manson used it as one of the prophesy songs he “heard” within The Beatles. Manson saw the song, along with a handful of others, as a “call to arms” to his family of followers and in the racial war he had long been predicting. This uprising, which became known to Manson as Helter Skelter (see also “Helter Skelter”, on side three), was, in Manson’s eyes, the time for black people to give white people the “damn good whacking” he thought they were due. As the summer progressed and his vision wasn’t coming to pass, Manson felt he would have to start things off by showing the way — by means of starting the murders on his own.
During the murders of Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and four others that Manson instructed, his minions left references to the song lyrics throughout the murder scenes. At both houses, “pigs” and “death to pigs” was written in blood on the victim’s walls and in the LaBianca murder, Leno LaBianca was stabbed and left with both a fork and knife in his body.
Many consider the Manson murders to be the end, or death knell, of the summer of love. For these events to have been tied — even if just through the mind of a crazed and off-kilter fan — to the Beatles catalog, a band who espoused nothing but love and peace, was in itself a true crime.
— Stacey Allen