Paul McCartney Explains How Bach Influenced “Blackbird”

If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

For most of human­i­ty, this might mean nab­bing a lick or two from Paul McCart­ney’s play­book.

For Paul McCart­ney, it meant bor­row­ing from Bach — the fifth move­ment from Suite in E minor for Lute, to be spe­cif­ic.

As he explained dur­ing the above 2005 appear­ance on the Parkin­son Show, when he and his bud­dy, George Har­ri­son, used to sit around teach­ing them­selves basic rock n’ roll chords, their show off move was a bit of semi-clas­si­cal fin­ger­pick­ing that Sir Paul mod­est­ly claimed to be “not very good at:”

It was actu­al­ly clas­si­cal but we made it semi.

Thus­ly did the chord pro­gres­sions of Bach’s Bour­ree in E minor  — a piece which “I nev­er knew the title of, which George and I had learned to play at an ear­ly age; he bet­ter than me actu­al­ly”  — inspire Black­bird:

Part of its struc­ture is a par­tic­u­lar har­mon­ic thing between the melody and the bass line which intrigued me. Bach was always one of our favorite com­posers; we felt we had a lot in com­mon with him. For some rea­son we thought his music was very sim­i­lar to ours and we latched on to him amaz­ing­ly quick­ly. We also liked the sto­ries of him being the church organ­ist and wop­ping this stuff out week­ly, which was rather sim­i­lar to what we were doing. We were very pleased to hear that…The fin­ger­pick­ing style was some­thing we admired in Chet Atkins, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a piece called Tram­bone, though it was also played by Col­in Man­ley, from a group called The Remo Four. They’d start­ed out in Liv­er­pool around the same time as The Bea­t­les.

This decep­tive­ly slow burn, now a sta­ple of Sir Paul’s setlists, debuted as a solo acoustic track on the White Album.

Bach’s Bour­ree in E minor also inspired Jethro Tull and, hilar­i­ous­ly, Tena­cious D.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch Pre­cious­ly Rare Footage of Paul McCart­ney Record­ing “Black­bird” at Abbey Road Stu­dios (1968)

When the Bea­t­les Refused to Play Before Seg­re­gat­ed Audi­ences on Their First U.S. Tour (1964)

The Bea­t­les’ ‘Black­bird’ Sung in the Indige­nous Mi’kmaq Lan­guage

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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