I saw a bird this morning in the top branches of our cherry tree. All black, songbird-sized, bright yellow beak. It pecked at the fruit. I moved closer to the window, and the bird glared briefly in my direction and flew away.
The best match on an internet search was the common blackbird, aka Turdus merula, aka the Eurasian blackbird. The trouble, as the last name suggests, is that those blackbirds don’t seem to frequent the continental US. They aren’t on The Official State List of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee or other local bird-identification sites. Types of blackbirds found in my state include the red-winged blackbird, the common grackle, the brown-headed cowbird, and the European starling. None of these looked very much like the bird I’d seen, and the starling was the only one with a yellow beak.
I wondered what kind of symbolism might be associated with a blackbird. I’m not particularly superstitious myself, but always curious. I’m always looking for connections between things. The connections are constructed, but soothing. I entered the question “What does it mean when you see a blackbird?”
Top answer: death.
Ruh-roh. I didn’t need anything to make me more anxious about my coronavirus vaccine appointment, which was 28 hours away. I’m scheduled to get the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vax. It engenders a mixture of hope and terror (I’m a baby about needles), and it’s on my mind so everything I hear or see gets connected to it. In response to news reports about extreme reactions to the shot, some CNN doctor said, “Well, it’s a powerful shot.” I didn’t find that comforting. Now I had to work bird lore into the mix.
The blackbird has plenty of other symbolic associations, most of them vibing with black, bird, or night. Blackbirds can signify change, mystery, magic, night, singing. Also they can be the Devil in disguise, evidently. I looked for something benign that would resonate. Many of the gurus avoided the death aspect entirely and stressed the “change” meaning. I looked up starling symbology as well, which like the blackbird stuff, was vague and contradictory. Starling can stand for family relationships, illumination, luck, etiquette, acceptance of one’s lot in life.
Is it significant that confusion reigns in the 1968 Beatles song “Blackbird”? Paul McCartney is clear about where the opening guitar lick originated: it’s based on J.S. Bach’s Bourree in E minor for lute, a piece that he had practiced. As to where and how the song took shape, accounts vary. McCartney wrote it in India after hearing a blackbird sing one morning. He wrote it in Scotland while meditating on the US civil rights movement. He wrote it in his father’s house to comfort his ailing step-grandmother. The lyrics are about nature, or love, or justice.
I like the song, although as with a lot of Beatles tunes I mostly know little bits of it. Mostly snippets that play on ads. The Beatles had been broken up for years by the time I started listening to Top 40 radio. Early in the pandemic, back when we were still trying to do choir rehearsals on Zoom, the director had us sing along to a karaoke version of Blackbird. “Everybody knows this, right?” she asked. Sure, definitely, yup. She muted our mics so we could sing along without the distraction of sound echoes and delays.
The guitar lick started. This will be fun! I thought. This is a great song! “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” I warbled, enjoying the lovely leap of a fifth at the end.
I got into trouble on the second line, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” Same number of syllables, but differing in rhythm and melody—I couldn’t quite remember how. I got back on track with the last lines of the verse “You were only waiting/for this moment to arrive” and breathed a sigh of relief. Second verse, same problems.
Then the background music changed. More lyrics popped onscreen. I couldn’t even guess at the tune or the rhythm. Across the Zoom gallery some of my fellow choristers were smiling and singing, while others echoed my confused expression. I kept my mouth moving, chanting the words. “Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/into the light of a dark black night.”
Time slowed, as it always does when I’m really screwing up. The karaoke lasts for just over two minutes, but it felt like two months before I hit the safety of the final “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
The director unmuted us. “How did it go?” Some of us had loved it. Some of us had gotten confused. One of us, a Millennial, had never heard the song before and had been lost the whole time.
When it was my turn, I said, “I realized I don’t know this song as well as I thought.” Which, come to think of it, could be my personal meaning for blackbird: muddling through life’s dark spots.