Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bye-Bye, Blackbird

Performed by Toots Thielemans (harmonica)

If it's always seemed as if something's missing from this song lyric, it’s because there is.

Eddie Cantor, Carmen McCrae, Frank Sinatra and many others who have recorded Bye Bye Blackbird have only sung the chorus:
“Pack up all my care and woe, Here I go singing low: Bye, bye, blackbird...”

The verses of the 1926 song written by Ray Henderson (music) and Mort Dixon (lyrics) are far less known. Here is the first of two verses:

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.

But is the blackbird just a black bird? No. The lyrics were written with heavy-handed symbolism. A Boston area jazz singer popular in the '30s and '40s named Mae Arnotte claims the song was originally performed as a slow blues number and used the phrase "Bye Bye Blackbirds." Supposedly, the singer was leaving the big city: "No one here can love or understand me, oh, the hard luck stories they all hand me." The "they" she refers to are the blackbirds or “johns” in the big city. Then the singer was going home to her mother: "Where somebody waits for me, sugar's sweet, so is she." "I'll be home late tonight" supposedly indicates she lived a short distance from the city.

Whoever the singer is, he/she is tired of what they originally left home for and now want to make a prodigal return, referred to in the second verse:

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.

So there are really two birds in the song. The color of the birds symbolizes the singer's feelings about leaving the big city for home. The blackbird stands for the hopeless days of no sunshine, while the bluebird represents clear skies and hope.

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