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‘Blackbird’: The powerful meaning behind Beyoncé’s Beatles cover on Cowboy Carter

‘Blackbird’: The powerful meaning behind Beyoncé’s Beatles cover on Cowboy Carter

When Beyoncé’s eighth album Cowboy Carter was released earlier today, it was met with widespread acclaim. In a five-star review of the country-influenced record, The Independent’s chief music critic Helen Brown wrote: “It’s a reminder that country music has always been about ‘three chords and the truth’. Beyoncé’s truth shines here with the fierce strength of the Texan sun. Cowboy hats off to her.”

Unusually for a Beyoncé album, the record includes a couple of covers. One, her highly-anticipated reworking of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, is a radical revision of the country staple that sees Beyoncé warning off, rather than begging to, her love rival. As Parton herself put it in response: “Beyoncé is giving that girl some trouble and she deserves it!”

The other cover on the album is much more faithful to the original, which itself wouldn’t ordinarily be considered a country song. “Blackbird” (which Beyoncé restyles as “Blackbiird” in keeping with her Act II theme), was written by Paul McCartney and was included on The Beatles’ groundbreaking 1968 double album The Beatles, usually known as the White Album. While at first glance it may seem like an unlikely song to appear prominently near the start of Beyoncé’s 27-track epic, the cover might just be the key to understanding the album as a whole.

McCartney wrote the song in the summer of 1968, taking musical inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach’s classic lute piece “Bourrée in E minor”. Lyrically, however, he had his gaze turned towards the civil rights movement, which was unfolding across the US, particularly in the country’s Southern states. It was a tumultous time. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennesse on 4 April 1968, and his death sparked a wave of riots across the country. Just a week after King’s death, President Lyndon B Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, which made it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone... by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin, handicap or familial status”.

Beyoncé (left) and The Beatles’ Paul McCartney (Theo Wargo/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Beyoncé (left) and The Beatles’ Paul McCartney (Theo Wargo/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

McCartney had been reading about this social upheaval and was particularly moved by the story of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African American students who had enrolled in school in Arkansas in 1957 shortly after school segregation was declared unconstitutional.

In a 2018 interview with GQ, McCartney explained: “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. So that was in my mind, and I just thought it’d be really good if I could write something that if it ever reached any of the people going through those problems, it might kind of give them a little bit of hope.”

He went on to say that he specifically envisioned a young Black girl growing up in the South, and used the colloquial slang of the era. “In England, a ‘bird’ is a girl,” said McCartney. “So I was thinking of a Black girl going through this, you know, now’s your time to arise and set yourself free. Take these broken wings...”

Beyoncé’s decision to cover the song along with a quartet of Black female country singers, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts, therefore makes perfect sense on an album that sees her stake her claim on the country genre. 56 years after it was written, the song has been taken up by young women from the South who weren’t even born when McCartney wrote it, and they’ve given it new wings.