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notes on ...

Notes on "Blackbird"


Notes on ... Series #139 (B3)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: G Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Interlude | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse (instrumental) | Refrain | Interlude |
                  | Verse | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 11 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 11th June 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note This folk song, spiked by just a little shot of blues, is a welcome contrast (or perhaps, antidote) to what might be called the various excesses scattered all over the rest of the double "White Album"; no pejorative connotations intended.
  Next note The song is a marvel of deceptive simplicity: the raw materials used are both simple in nature and small in number. Yet, they are recombined with a quiet, clever economy that makes them sound quite rich.
  Next note The song also features a surprisingly large amount of free-verse uneven phrasing.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The home key of G is clearly sustained throughout, though the Major mode of the verse sections is supplanted in the refrains by a bluesy Dorian mode; i.e. the one with minor third and seventh degrees (the white note scale on ["this is"] D).
  Next note The lyric's encouraging message to proactively rise above one's most innate challenges is nicely abetted by the way in which the high points of the tune are deployed: a high D as early as the third measure of the verse, and the really high G (the climax of the song) smack in the middle of the refrain, right where the V-of-V chord appears.


  Next note There's just acoustic guitar and a metronome! For those of you who, like myself, first encountered this song on vinyl, I am curious to know if anyone else ever entertained an initial suspicion that the ticking was caused by an extraordinarily well-synchronized scratch on the platter? :-)
  Next note The lead vocal is intimately done up single tracked for the verse, and doubled for the refrains.
  Next note The guitar part is dominated by a progression of parallel tenths, the "melodic" thrust of which drives the harmony in broad brush; i.e. not every measure contains a chord of roman numeral or grammatical significance. As a matter of training your ear, I recommend you try listening to this track while actively blocking out the vocal, and concentrating on those tenths in the guitar part; try it, you'll like it.
  Next note A rather obvious compositional lesson, but one worth pointing out in any event: if you're going to add a birds-chirping effect to a song in which the same creatures figure in the lyrics, then don't use them for the whole piece, and if you use them for only "half," then save them for the latter half. That said, I don't believe this song would lack anything if the birds had been omitted.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is identical to the accompaniment of the verse section's first phrase; see A phrase below.


  Next note The placid mood of the verse is belied by its flexibly uneven phrasing; first phrase being two beats longer than three measures, second phrase of four measures, third phrase of three measures, and finally another four measure phrase:
   ** A Phrase       -half-
       |B     C     |D     |b     -     |-           |
       |G     A     |B     |g     -     |-           |
    G:  I

   ** B Phrases
       |E     G     |F#     A     |G     -     |-           |
       |C     C#    |D      D#    |E     -     |Eb    -     |
        IV                         vi

       |F#    G     |E      -     |Eb          |
       |D     Db    |C      -     |-           |

       |D     -     |C#     -     |C-nat -     |B     -     |
       |B     -     |A      -     |      -     |G     -     |
        I6/3         V-of-V        V7           I

   [Figure 139.1]
  Next note I'm dishing out the roman numerals sparsely here. Yes, if you want to get fussy about it you can droom-up such numerals for every change in this section, but I reiterate my earlier comment that your ear is largely carried along by the melodic motion here, rather than by harmonic (i.e. root) "progression". Scale-wise bassline movement retains the special power to make this work, especially when it is made to move chromatically by half-step, as happens here part of the time.
  Next note The first verse, only, is followed by the following instrumental connecting section, which is a kind of four-measure condensation of the previous six measures:
   ** C Phrase
       |E     D     |C#    -     |C-nat       |B           |
       |C     B     |A     -     |D           |G           |
        IV    I6/3   V-of-V       V7           I

   [Figure 139.2]
  Next note The second verse proceeds directly into the refrain without the C phrase.


  Next note The refrain also features uneven phrases (4 + 5), in spite of its otherwise parallel, AA' sub-structure:
   |A      G      |F      E       |D      -       |E      -        |
   |F      E      |D      C       |Bb     -       |C      -        |
                          IV                       IV

   |A     G     |F     E     |D     -     |C#    -     |C-natural  |
   |F     E     |D     C     |Bb    -     |A     -     |D          |
                       IV                  V-of-V       V

   [Figure 139.3]
  Next note Again, I'm using a light hand with the chord labels. For example, I steer clear of labeling the chords on the downbeats of the first two measures of this section as having harmonic "roots" of their own; I hear them as appoggiaturas or passing tones with respect to the C-Major chords in the second half of those two measures.
  Next note In the big picture, think of the entire first phrase as a prolongation of the IV chord, with the ultimate destination reached by the second phrase (A-Major, V-of-V) being cautiously stepped back from at the last minute in the first phrase. Superb "word painting" in light of the song's message.
  Next note The detailed form of the song from here to the end is a bit more complicated than typical. The first refrain elides with an instrumental exposition of the complete verse. The latter leads back into a repeat of the refrain, which is followed this time with:
  • An instrumental extension of phrase A above, which outro-like, leads to a brief halt, but wait; there's still more!
  • An intro-like section that is constructed out of phrases A and C elided together.
  • At this point, the birds enter, and the song moves into its final verse.


  Next note The outro grows out of the final verse with yet another example of the three-times-you're-out gambit; something, again, that rhetorically fits here in terms of the underlying message.
  Next note And one last bird-related lesson: let the sound effect persist a rough second or two after the music stops, because neither alternative of shutting off the birds either before the music or exactly at the same time as the music works as well.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note We've got another case this time where the final version demonstrates some masterful reworking of the Esher [**] demo:
  • The demo gives away the entire verse whereas, in general, you'd be better off holding a couple of the cards up your sleeve, or at least, if you're going to give the whole verse away in the Intro, then at least do not double up on the sung verses; e.g. compare with "Martha My Dear".
  • In spite of the long intro, the demo lacks most of the instrumental interludes that appears in the final version; no C phrase intervenes between the first two verses, the instrumental third verse contains the final phrase sung, and there outro/re-intro after the second refrain is eliminated.
  • The demo ends with a "four-times-you're-out" gimmick which not only seems a too-long violation of the rhetorical Rule of Three, but also undermines the flow by not repeating the sung tag line in the second repeat.
  [** The so-called Esher demos consist of 26 demos recorded at George Harrison's Esher bungalow, between the return of Lennon and Harrison from Rishikesh, India, in April 1968 and the start of the recordings for the "White Album" on the 30th of May 1968. Some of these were released on "Anthology", Volume 3.]
  Alan (121497#139)
Copyright © 1997 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.