How Blackbird became the unofficial song (and bird) of our family.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
The Beatles – Blackbird
I used to be a young ornithologist. As admissions of youthful indiscretions go, it is not, perhaps, the most shocking but it has the advantage of being true. All through my primary school days, before I discovered music, football, computers and girls, (the things that would occupy my mind and time during my teenage years), I enjoyed nothing more than to head to a nature reserve or reservoir, binoculars in tow, to search for Wigeons, Mergansers, and Great-Crested Grebes.
I was also a member of the Young Ornithologists Club, the youth wing of the RSPB (side note – describing anything as the youth wing of another organisation makes it sound analogous to Hitler Youth, which is not my intention), eagerly awaiting my monthly magazine to see what antics Rooky (see badge below) had been up to. I was part of a school quiz team which entered some kind of bird-related quiz competition (knocked out first round), and entered my drawing of a water rail in a bird-drawing competition (second prize). Incidentally, this second-prize water rail has entered family mythology as evidence that I have hidden artistic abilities, although in my mind I was rewarded more for effort than for matching the elegantly drawn birds of prey of my contemporaries.
As I grew older, I thought little of birds. As a teenager, as mentioned, other things were on my mind. In my university years and onwards, the urban enviroment of Manchester was not home to much bird life and I rarely ventured into the countryside, unless you count music festivals. When I lived in Brighton, birds were to feared, or at least wary of. Aggressive seagulls, swooping to steals your chips, and maybe a bit of your scalp or arm while you were at it. Scratty urban pigeons, walking around liked they owned the place (although the flocks of migrating starlings swooping around the burned out pier did provide quite a spectacular sight on occasion).
Birds did crop up often in the music I listened to though, an obvious or innovative metaphor. I heard many songs where singers flew higher than eagles, sang like nightingales, and rotated their head 360 degrees and emitted pellets like an owl (I may have made the last one up). Not the most famous bird song of all though, ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles. Given the dominant role The Beatles play in music culture, especially in this country, it seems astonishing that someone who has spent 20 years plus obsessed with music could not have heard one of their better-known songs. I feel I should have absorbed them all through some sort of cultural osmosis, but no, my mind was a Blackbird-free zone.
A couple of years back, on a trip to stay with a friend up in Edinburgh, our friend agreed to babysit our then 2 year-old daughter, so my wife and I could enjoy a rare night out. We wandered to the nearest pub, eager for a chance to talk and renew. We were a little disappointed when a pub singer started to set up, we wanted to talk to each other, and we’re too cool to listen to a middle aged man playing covers in a pub (we thought snobbishly). Still though, the power of live music overcomes. He played songs we knew, songs we liked, in the main, and he played them well. And in that small pub it felt like he played just for us. Then he started ‘Blackbird’ and suddenly the song I never knew seemed to be a song I’d known all my life, the simple beauty of the song filling my heart with joy and love. The power of music can strike in the most unexpected ways, and the memory of that moment will stay with us a long time.
Eighteen months on, and ‘Blackbird’ returned to our lives from another unexpected source. It plays a prominent role in the movie ‘The Boss Baby’, our daughter’s latest obsession, and she has really taken a shine to it (not the first time she has taken a shine to The Beatles, incidentally). She sings it about the house constantly, and if there is any sound sweeter than hearing your four-year-old daughter singing ‘Blackbird’ to herself in bed before she falls asleep, then I don’t know what it could be. She evens asks for it to be sung to her every bedtime, as the character in the film does. Literally a Hollywood fantasy of what parenting is like, but one I’m only too happy to play my part in.
So ‘Blackbird’ the song has become an important part of our family’s collective life, and blackbird, the black bird has been visiting us too. I’m an older ornithologist now, lucky enough to have a home with a little garden out front, and my love for watching birds has returned, with the sparrows, goldfinches and blue tits flitting about on our bushes. Most of all I love to sit gazing out our window, my daughter by my side, gazing through her binoculars at the blackbirds picking worms from our front lawn, waiting for their moment to arise.
Post script – after writing this, but before publishing it, my daughter decided she didn’t like the song any more, as if it to prove that real life isn’t quite like the movies.