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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