Wednesday, March 09, 2016


Funny, that a song written 90 years ago (1926) needs to be explained. Some think that “Bye Bye Blackbird” is some kind of racist tune, and that at best, it’s sung by a black who is happy to get away from a bunch of rednecks.

As the old sheet music above would indicate, the song is actually about bidding a symbolic farewell to the black bird of gloom. This, as opposed to Poe's "Raven," who still is sitting, still is sitting...

It’s easy to spin-doctor this old song, especially when you consider that “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney does indeed have a racial message. Macca insisted that the song was inspired by the plight of blacks in America, and anyone finding a double-meaning in black birds as either birds or oppressed humans was on solid ground.

A few weeks ago, Dave Grohl sang “Blackbird” at the Academy Awards, offering dual meanings. It was sung during the “In Memorium” segment, with visuals of some deceased stars (Lizabeth Scott) but not others (Abe Vigoda). Obviously the message was that those now with sunken eyes would be heaven-bound. The more coded but intentional double meaning was: “Hey, the Oscars failed to nominate Will Smith and other black birds, so they’re racist!"

So, what about “Bye Bye Blackbird?”

The song was written by two white guys, composer Ray Henderson and lyricist Mort Dixon. From the start it was sung by just about everyone from white man Gene Austin to black woman Josephine Baker. Whoever sang it, it was a croon with an uptempo jazz beat; the singer is happy and optimistic about leaving for someplace better:

Blackbird, blackbird singing the blues all day
Right outside of my door.
Blackbird, blackbird why do you sit and say
There's no sunshine in store?
All through the winter you hung around.
Now I begin to feel homeward bound.
Blackbird, blackbird gotta be on my way
Where there's sunshine galore.

The infamous chorus has a bit of sadness to it (“No one here can love or understand me, oh the hard luck stories they all hand me.”) But the good news is that the singer is headed home: “Where somebody waits for me, sugar’s sweet, so is she [or he].” It's probable that the racial tinge to the song came from so many quick versions of the song eliminating all but the sorrowful chorus.

In the second stanza, the bird shifts color, from the black bird of misery to the bluebird of happiness:

Bluebird, bluebird, calling me far away
I've been longing for you.
Bluebird, bluebird, what do I hear you say?
Skies are turning to blue, I'm like a flower that's fading here,
Where ev'ry hour is one long tear.
Bluebird, bluebird this is my lucky day.
Now my dreams will come true.

The era was loaded with songs about change and movement (“Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”) as well as every cliche about color, including “Blue Skies” as symbolic of carefree tranquility.

Yes, there were also songs that addressed race, and used color symbolism. Fats Waller comes to mind with his song "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue)?" But, “Bye Bye Blackbird” ain’t one of ‘em.

Side note: Puffins are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They join the depleted ranks of European Turtle Doves, Pochards and Slavonian Grebes. Among others. So in addition to a hipster reference to Charlie Parker ("Bird Lives") let's not neglect other species. "BIRD LIVES MATTER." GENE AUSTIN Bye Bye Blackbird

No comments: