13 Ways of playing “Blackbird”

I first decided to try to learn to play guitar about six years ago. I was living in Illinois, near the last stop on the Northwest train line from Chicago. We’d had a really bad storm that knocked out our power (and with it our access to our well water) and had gone to find shelter a few suburbs toward civilization in the basement of my sister-in-law’s house. She had, in her basement, a guitar that she’d bought off of QVC. It was a cheap Chinese instrument that smelled vaguely like lighter fluid, but it stayed in tune pretty well and it was enough to get me started. She told me to take it home with me when the lights came back on. And I did.

My friend Lorena had started taking guitar a few months before. She was studying at the guitar store where I taught fiddle, taking lessons with one of my fiddle students. She told me to try playing Blackbird. “It’s hard, but not too hard.”

Lorena was right. It was the right song for me to start on. Fingerstyle came more naturally to me as a fiddle player. Plus the song was inspired by the Bourée from J.S. Bach’s e minor lute suite.

I’d grown up playing Bach on violin, so the sound made sense to me. And “Blackbird” felt good under my fingers, even as I struggled to get them in the right place on the fretboard.

I played it every day, chipping away at it over weeks. One February night, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get the song out of my head. I tiptoed downstairs, grabbed my guitar, and sat on the stairs where I wouldn’t wake anyone and played very quietly. After I finished, I had not only the lyrics of “Blackbird” in my head, but also one of my favorite poems, Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The two became intertwined in my head in the way that can only happen in the middle of a sleepless night. In the morning, I sat down and wrote this one one fell swoop. It still feels like one of the truest things I’ve ever been able to say about the process of learning a song.

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird

Here is the thing about learning a new piece on a new instrument: it’s not about being new. You only think it is at first. But as you go on, you realize it is just about the opposite of new. It’s about falling into something that was always there, only you never noticed before. It’s like trying to hop onto a moving train. At first you can’t keep up and are left standing in the landscape. Then all of a sudden, you are moving with the train. No, you are the train. And the landscape too.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

With guitar, there are always three things going on at once: the left hand, the right hand, and the voice. I am thinking of them as my three blackbirds. The first blackbird is my left hand. It’s the one I have to think of first, the one that notices the patterns and adjusts its choreography accordingly. The second is my right hand, which has to find the strings the first blackbird has already named. The third blackbird mostly croaks its way through the lyrics on notes that are nearly too low to sing at all. The third blackbird may eventually croak for a capo, but for now is content with her blackbird voice and the sounds of the other two.

take these broken wings and learn to fly

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

At the end of a day spent with blackbird, I’m unable to shake it from my body. I hear it in the silence. It affects my body as I move through the kitchen. I wonder if I am inhabiting the song or the song is inhabiting me. It’s like a dance without moving.

all your life

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

When you begin to learn a song, it is like sifting through tiles to make a mosaic. You glimpse flashes of color here and there, but mostly it’s a pile of pieces that need to be slowly and painfully arranged into a pattern before they have any meaning or beauty. Even when you know what it is you want to see, it still surprises you when the picture appears before you, a sudden whole from what seemed an impossible number of parts. One song. One blackbird.

you were always waiting for this moment to arise

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

When my fingers know the song, then it is transformed. It is no longer the same song I sat down to learn. It is a building I live in. In my head, I know its shape and style, the same way my fingers know where to move without my looking at them. The words don’t matter. The tune doesn’t matter, and this surprises me, because I thought it did. What matters are the chords under my fingers and that soft metallic slide from the third to the twelfth fret.

When I play the music, it now comes from my fingers and my voice, not from the sound image in my head. I no longer try to match it. I try to inflect it, to make it my own. I have taken it in and now I am giving it back out. This is how you know when the song is yours.

blackbird singing in the dead of night

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

After you’ve been playing a song for a while, a strange thing happens. You stop getting better and you start getting worse. It happens on every song, on every instrument. You may think you have broken it. But this is the moment when the music happens. It is the moment when you want to give up, but it is the very last moment when you should.

take these sunken eyes and learn to see

O thin men of Haddam
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

Sometimes the simplest things about a song become the most beautiful. My blackbird is about the dance the fingers do to play “take these broken wings and learn to fly.” It has always been my favorite part to listen to. It is even more beautiful to play. Just four chords, the slightest of sequences.

all your life

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When you are in the middle of absorbing a song, you start to feel like it is absorbing you, like it’s reconfiguring your thoughts, adjusting your mind to its rhythms, even when your guitar is nowhere to be seen. Lying in bed, I listen to the song in my mind, and then go on to think of other things. A few minutes later, I notice that my fingers have not stopped moving.

you were always waiting for this moment to be free

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

How do you know when to stop playing a song?
How do you know that you won’t stop it forever?

blackbird, fly

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

The next step is to try your hand with other blackbirds. Live recordings. The White Album. Whatever you can find. Try out what you know with others. See where you fit in the whole history of blackbirds. This is when you learn to make some noise. This is when you learn your place in the world.

into the light of a dark black night

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

And here is the strange thing that happens next: You will start to hear blackbirds everywhere. Is it real? Did they really just play that song on the radio? Or is it a hallucination? Some strange sickness? An obsession with blackbirds with no known cure?

blackbird singing in the dead of night

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

And then suddenly playing is like breathing. You will pick up the guitar and continue to play blackbird while having a conversation with someone. Or while reading a book. It is just something that is always moving, like a river or a blackbird flying.

take these broken wings and learn to fly

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Finally, when the song is in you and you are in it, it is time to play it for someone else. It doesn’t matter whether it is another person, someone who is listening carefully with a loving heart or a critical tongue, or if it is an inscrutable blackbird in the cedar-limbs. Once you’ve played it for someone else, then it is a song that you know. It becomes part of who you are and part of what you do.

you were always waiting for this moment to arise.

(February 2011)


One thought on “13 Ways of playing “Blackbird”

  1. We all have our obsessions. I marvel that yours can leave you awake at night with an obsession that is so literate and accessible. Mine tend to be so mathematical or technical that I think few people would understand them, much less want to read about them. Bravo!


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