Hear Beyoncé’s Revelatory Version of the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’

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Beyoncé has so many audacious culture-clash triumphs all over Cowboy Carter. But one of the most stunning moments is also one of the simplest: her version of The Beatles classic “Blackbird.” Paul McCartney wrote the song in the summer of 1968, inspired by the American civil rights movement. All that history is right there in Beyoncé’s version. She keeps the folkie Paul guitar, complete with the squeaks, but adds her heavenly gospel-soul harmonies. What she does with the word “arise” is incredible in itself.

It’s a stroke of Beyoncé’s revisionary genius that brings the story of “Blackbird” full circle. She claims the song as if Paul McCartney wrote it for her. Because, in so many ways, he did.

Paul tells the story of writing it in his 2021 book The Lyrics. “At the time in 1968 when I was writing ‘Blackbird,’” he recalls, “I was very conscious of the terrible racial tensions in the US. The year before, 1967, had been a particularly bad year, but 1968 was even worse. The song was written only a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That imagery of the broken wings and the sunken eyes and the general longing for freedom is very much of its moment.”

Paul wrote this song as a dialogue with Black America; Bey’s “Blackbird” is part of that call-and-response, proof that the song always meant exactly what McCartney hoped it would mean. It’s one of the most profound powerful Beatles covers ever, right up there with Aretha Franklin’s “The Long and Winding Road.” 

“I had in mind a Black woman, rather than a bird,” Paul says of the song in the 1997 book Many Years From Now, by Barry Miles. “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.’”

Paul was especially moved by the Little Rock Nine—a group of teenagers, the same age as so many Beatlemaniac fans, who caused a nationwide racist outrage in 1957 when they tried to enroll in an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Governor Orville Faubus called out the National Guard to block the kids from setting foot in the school. Writing “Blackbird” in the summer of 1968, with high-profile anti-Black violence in both the U.S. and the U.K., he turned that into the song. “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.”

“Blackbird” is a song with a long history in Black music, from reggae (the Paragons’ gorgeous version from ’73) to jazz legends including Ramsey Lewis, Sarah Vaughn, and Cassandra Wilson. No song has a deeper dialogue between the Beatles and the Black America that gave them their voices. Anderson Paak put his spin on “Blackbird” in 2013, years before he ended up contributing to Paul’s album McCartney 3 Imagined, with his funk remix of “When Winter Comes.” The Beatles’ sidekick Billy Preston, who plays with them all over the Get Back movie, gospelized it in 1972, as the flip side of his Number One hit “Will It Go Round In Circles.” His version is on the superb Ace Records anthology Come Together: Black America Sings The Beatles.

Beyoncé brings all that history to her version. There’s also a Paul-like playful humor in the way she makes a horse the star of her album cover.(Could Chardonneigh be the new Martha?) In other words, she is Macca Fierce.

But Bey’s version ties in directly to Sylvester’s disco version of “Blackbird” from 1979, perhaps the most audacious and radical version ever. Sylvester was the first gay Black pop star who was out of the closet, as far as the public knew. Tragically, he also become one of the first stars to pass in the Eighties AIDs epidemic. But 1979 he was back in San Francisco as a hometown hero, after breaking big nationwide. “Blackbird” is his falsetto-disco celebration from Living Proof, one of the Seventies’ greatest live albums. He was on top of the world: it was officially “Sylvester Day” in San Francisco, where he received the Key to the City from the Mayor, who happened to be Diane Feinstein. That night he headlined the War Memorial Opera House, and did the most beautiful remake of “Blackbird” ever heard—until now.

Sylvester claims “Blackbird” for himself and his community. He trades call-and-response vocals (“Y’all ready, girls?”) with his back-up singers, eternal disco legends Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the Two Tons o’ Fun. (They later blew up as the Weather Girls, belting their classic “It’s Raining Men.”) When they sing “You were only waiting for this moment to arise,” you can feel the whole crowd rise to join them. They’re not hiding out in the shadows anymore. They’re spreading their wings. It’s their night to fly. This is their song, and their moment.

Hearing Beyonce sing this song now evokes her Uncle Johnny, a member of the queer Black disco culture that Sylvester epitomized, and the guiding spirit of her love letter to that culture, Renaissance. (He died tragically in the same epidemic as Sylvester, ten years later.) You can hear her “arise” connect with Sylvester’s “arise.” And you can hear her Uncle Johnny in both of them.

Beyoncé has always loved reclaiming rock & roll as Black female performance. It’s one of her artistic passions—check her mind-blowing versions of The Doors’ “Five To One,” Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know,” and even Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire.” Long before Stevie Nicks had her grand 2010s comeback, Destiny’s Child got her back on MTV wth “Bootylicious.” Most spectacularly, the Lemonade classic “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is Beyonce channeling Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks” through Led Zeppelin, with Jack White wailing on guitar. But “Blackbird” is different, because McCartney wrote the song explicitly about Black women and their struggle in the American racism of the 1960s.

The Bey/Paul connections go deep. Bey and Paul were spotted hanging out at Coachella a decade ago; they also worked out together at an L.A. gym. He was visibly having a great time at her 2011 New York residency. He saw the Renaissance World Tour in London last summer—a clip of his dancing went viral—and posed for a memorable photo with Jay-Z, lifting their champagne glasses to toast the Queen. On tour, Bey wore a custom Stella McCartney silver dress and leggings. As Stella said, “It is a life moment to dress someone as iconic and inspiring as Beyoncé – a visionary pioneer, disruptor and artist who has worked tirelessly to make the world a better place.”

Paul-haters might have questioned his sincerity about “Blackbird,” but that just means they weren’t listening. Because this song didn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s part of his lifelong engagement with Black music and Black culture. “Blackbird” was hardly his the only explicitly anti-racist statement on the White Album. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da” is a ska ode to West Indian immigrant family life in England (“Desmond is a very Carribean name,” he says in the Anthology book) at a time when the right-wing politician Enoch Powell was whipping up racist and anti-immigrant hysteria with his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968. That summer, with high-profile anti-Black violence in both the U.S. and the U.K., “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da” was a consciously provocative statement.

He lashed out at Powell even more directly months later in “Commonwealth Song,” which turned into “Get Back.” But in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” he made these Caribbean immigrants his embodiment of family values—and turned it into an unimpeachably wholesome kiddie sing-along. The title phrase came from a Nigerian musician friend in London, the conga player Jimmy Scott. (He later died in suspicious circumstances after being imprisoned by U.K. customs officials.) 

When Paul performed in Little Rock in 2016, he met for the first time with Thelma Mothershed Wair and Elizabeth Eckford, two of the Black women who incited so much racist controversy by trying to enter an all-white high school. Meeting these two heroes had a profound impact on him. “Incredible to meet two prisoners of the civil rights movement and inspiration for ‘Blackbird,’” Paul said at the time. “Way back in the Sixties, there was a lot of trouble going on over civil rights, particularly in Little Rock,” he told the crowd that night, introducing the song. “We would notice this on the news back in England. So it’s a really important place for us, because to me, this is where civil rights started.”

But “Blackbird” is also in the tradition of his songs about everyday women and their unseen struggles—“Eleanor Rigby” and “Lady Madonna” with the Beatles, “Another Day” and “Jennie Wren” and “Little Willow” solo. (His empathy for his female characters was always radically different from other male songwriters of his generation, to say the least.) 

Bettye LaVette did one of the most moving versions in 2020, a gritty old-school R&B performance at 74, singing the lyrics in the first person. She felt a deep connection as soon as she heard it, saying, ‘‘I wonder if people know he’s talking about a Black woman?’” She made it the centerpiece of her album Blackbirds, where all the other songs were popularized by Black women singers—Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ruth Brown. “A lot of people don’t realize Paul McCartney wrote this song about the civil rights movement,” Steve Jordan, her producer (and drummer for the Rolling Stones), said. “And now you have an African-American woman who lived through the civil rights movement, so you’re getting a taste of what the song was really about.”

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The whole Cowboy Cartner is Beyonce using music as a map of American pop culture, from Willie and Dolly and Linda Martell to the Nancy Sinatra bassline, right up to the great moment when she starts singing the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Since she knows absolutely everything, she might even be consciously evoking the short-lived 1970s sitcom Carter Country, about a Black sheriff coming to a redneck small town in Georgia, from the creators of “What’s Happening!!” and “Sanford & Son.” Never put anything past her. She takes the details seriously.

For Paul, as with the other Beatles, the connection to Black American music was deep, But it was especially important for Paul for it to be a two-way dialogue. Beyoncé’s “Blackbird” is one that really completes the song—a profound moment in her history, the Beatles’ history, and this timeless song’s history. In so many ways, “Blackbird” has always been waiting for this moment to arise. And Beyoncé makes the song rise higher than ever before.

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