Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Blackbird

Two songs about despair and about hope, and a digression about how ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of

In addition to the obvious connections, these two songs have something else in common: I didn’t know much, if anything, about them until recently. Which leads to a digression about one of the things I hate most about social media and “online culture,” which is that it treats ignorance as something to be ashamed of.

The key example: I was one of the people who’d never heard of the Partition of India, or at least heard of it in a way that I could retain, until it was mentioned in Ms Marvel. Most of my history education was overwhelmingly euro-centric, meaning that we would often hear about the devastating effects of colonialism, but rarely hear about what came afterwards, when the colonists lost interest. So I had an impression of post-Raj India as being a political restructuring, with some interesting geographical trivia afterwards, like how there are enclaves-within-enclaves still in Pakistan. I had no idea of the magnitude of the deaths, or how much of it was a religious conflict, until I heard about it on a light-hearted television series about a teen super hero.

And on social media, that was inexcusable, apparently. I saw dozens and dozens of people dragging out their smdhs to scold us for our shocking ignorance. It wasn’t even framed as “our American and western European education systems are failing us!” but as a personal failing on our part.

Which is asinine, and in my mind a clear example of how Twitter (and now Bluesky) are rotten, and were rotten long before Elon Musk even picked up a sink.1In fact, the rottenness at its core might’ve been a major draw for an unrepentant douchebag looking to buy a few million public admirers. They mimic healthy, functioning communities, but in fact just magnify all the problems with real communities. In particular, the eagerness for people to practice performative outrage and self-righteous condemnation. Any place that would frame ignorance, or finding out we were wrong about something, as if it were contemptible is missing the entire point of what an actual global discussion should be about.

So with that all said, here’s two songs about a topic I know a little bit more about — the culture around the American Civil Rights movement — but still not nearly enough.

For instance: I’d never heard of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” until this morning.2Based on the YouTube comments, I guess quite a few people first discovered it from the series Lovecraft Country, which I hope gives some people on Bluesky something to complain about. I found it while looking for covers of the Paul McCartney song, although it was recorded several years earlier.

It’s a powerful gut-punch of a song, unlike anything else I’d heard from Nina Simone. Everything I’ve heard from Nina Simone until now has been either a cover of some jazz classic or a Broadway standard, and then Strange Fruit. Something I could respect and appreciate, but from a distance. But “Blackbird,” especially with the gap between what I’d expected and what I heard, made me shudder like the first time I read the last line of Harlem by Langston Hughes.

For me, it’s a reminder of how much of history is abstracted away into politics instead of lingering on the personal. Even the most fair-minded history usually focuses on activism and revolt — when the dream explodes, in other words — when even horrific events are at least an action, a step towards making things better. We need the cultural side, not just the political and historical side, to give a better idea of the long periods building up to revolution. Simone’s “Blackbird” isn’t weak or defeatist, but so buried under centuries of injustice and a society that refuses to change that there’s little left but despair.

And even though Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” has been one of my favorite songs ever since the first time I’d heard it, I was always ignorant of the context around it. In fact, it wasn’t until seeing the Beatles LOVE show recently that I thought there was any more to it than Paul McCartney writing another beautiful, completely abstract song. That show presented the song (too briefly, and paired with “Yesterday”) as a duet between a black woman and man, as stills from the civil rights movement were projected on screens around the theater. At the time, I thought it was lovely but maybe a little too on-the-nose, and maybe a little bit of revisionist history in its attempts to present the Beatles as if they were at the forefront of every political and cultural movement from WWII through the early 1970s.

Reading up about it afterwards was the first I’d learned that McCartney described the song in honor young black women in the American Civil Rights movement, the Little Rock Nine in particular. (I’ve read some complaints that this is McCartney engaging in some revisionist history of his own, but I don’t know what could possibly be gained by taking his interpretation as anything other than good faith). Today, we can be shocked at seeing photos of white adults publicly screaming at teenagers just trying to go to school, but it’s still easy to abstract it away, as ancient history (it wasn’t that long ago at all!) that was a tick towards social change (still very much in progress, as the bullshit opposition to Black Lives Matter, Critical race theory, and diversity initiatives, are all reminding us). I feel like these two songs called “Blackbird” need each other: one to make it clear how much bigotry is a crushing weight on all of us, and the other to give us hope.

The even better pairing is with Beyoncé’s cover of “Blackbird” from her new album Cowboy Carter. Even after a few paragraphs of White Middle-Aged Guy Tries To Explain Nina Simone and The Little Rock Nine, I’m not going to stumble my way through an explanation of the significance of Beyoncé choosing this song3Besides, there are dozens of online “explainers” already out there, a few of them actually insightful. But on top of being just a perfectly beautiful cover, there’s so much implicit in a mega-star sharing the song with other black women and overlaying it with the gospel and R&B influences that helped make her famous. It feels like McCartney’s version was incomplete, an abstract hope for overcoming adversity, until it was picked up and re-interpreted by someone who’s overcome it.

  • 1
    In fact, the rottenness at its core might’ve been a major draw for an unrepentant douchebag looking to buy a few million public admirers.
  • 2
    Based on the YouTube comments, I guess quite a few people first discovered it from the series Lovecraft Country, which I hope gives some people on Bluesky something to complain about.
  • 3
    Besides, there are dozens of online “explainers” already out there, a few of them actually insightful

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