Bye Bye Blackbird: or An American Folk Song, Eight Decades Later

>Despite it’s inherently timeless nature, I’m always surprised when music meant for another time and another place can traverse almost a century of culture shifts and make an impact on my life. In 1926, Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson penned the lyrics to the folk classic “Bye Bye Blackbird” and throughout the following eighty years, countless artists, from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis to Liza Minnelli and, later, even Ringo Starr and Joe Clocker (also brethren via “With a Little Help from My Friends”) would record this song in their various divergent styles.

The most memorable version for me, though, was never recorded and only passed down by word of mouth. In fact, until this week I was sure that “Bye Bye Blackbird” had just been a creation of my mothers own imagination. It was my bedtime song, for more years than I can remember…at least until I was eighteen…er, I mean…uh…eight.

It has been years since I thought about the song, but as my parents prepared to become “21st Century Pioneers,” and achieve the dream — nay, the right — of Manifest Destiny set out by our great nation’s forefathers by moving to Ye Olde Weste (aka – Santa Fe, New Mexico), I found myself meandering in a dense forest of childhood reminiscences. Disney movies, bedtime stories, The Beatles, nightlights…all things that were most influential. As the hour of my parents’ departure approached, the melody my mother used to sing to me as she put me to bed popped into my head, but I struggled to recall the words that I hadn’t heard in so long. I remembered “blackbird,” but my mind could not stop wandering to the Beatles’ song.

“What was that song, mom?…”

“‘Bye Bye Blackbird’,” she jumped at my question, uncannily knowing exactly which “that song” I had been thinking about.

And immediately the words came back, fitting right into the melody.

Pack up all my cares and woes,
Here I go,
Flying low,
Bye bye blackbird,

Where somebody waits for me,
Sugar’s sweet,
So is she,
Bye bye Blackbird.

No one here can love or understand me,
Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me,
So, make my bed and light the light,
I’ll be home late tonight,
Blackbird, bye bye.

So many feelings — of the warmth of my bed, of childhood, of not wanting my parents to leave, of fear — came flooding along with the lyrics. The latent memory of the song, and of its sole association for me, once so deeply embedded in the recesses of my mind, were now vividly at the forefront. And there they remain. I walk around all day, humming whistling openly singing my mother’s melody. No matter how many crackly old or sparkly new versions I hear, Ella and Miles and Ringo cannot begin to erode the etching of that one melody. Every note of theirs that deviates from hers is a sore thumb. They might as well be singing off key.

There are other songs that hold a special place in my life (“And So It Goes” by Billy Joel) and allow me access to emotional depth like few other things do, but they often come and go as I grow accustomed to the associations they hold for me. “Bye Bye Blackbird,” though, will always symbolize something meaningful, not the least of which is my earliest childhood memories and, in turn, my innocence.

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About Jacob Hyman

Drums. Drums. Also, drums.
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