Cover image for Blackbird: How Black Musicians Sang the Beatles into Being—and Sang Back to Them Ever After By Katie Kapurch, Jon Marc Smith, and with foreword byCyrus Cassells


How Black Musicians Sang the Beatles into Being—and Sang Back to Them Ever After

Katie Kapurch and Jon Marc Smith, with foreword by Cyrus Cassells


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09561-5

$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09562-2

Available as an e-book

272 pages
6" × 9"

American Music History


How Black Musicians Sang the Beatles into Being—and Sang Back to Them Ever After

Katie Kapurch and Jon Marc Smith, with foreword by Cyrus Cassells

“[T]here’s much to be savored.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
From the beginning, the Beatles acknowledged in interviews their debt to Black music, apparent in their covers of and written original songs inspired by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Shirelles, and other giants of R&B. Blackbird goes deeper, appreciating unacknowledged forerunners, as well as Black artists whose interpretations keep the Beatles in play.

Drawing on interviews with Black musicians and using the song “Blackbird” as a touchstone, Katie Kapurch and Jon Marc Smith tell a new history. They present unheard stories and resituate old ones, offering the phrase “transatlantic flight” to characterize a back-and-forth dialogue shaped by Black musicians in the United States and elsewhere, including Liverpool. Kapurch and Smith find a lineage that reaches back to the very origins of American popular music, one that involves the original twentieth-century blackbird, Florence Mills, and the King of the Twelve String, Lead Belly. Continuing the circular flight path with Nina Simone, Billy Preston, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Sylvester, and others, the authors take readers into the twenty-first century, when Black artists like Bettye LaVette harness the Beatles for today.

Detailed, thoughtful, and revelatory, Blackbird explores musical and storytelling legacies full of rich but contested symbolism. Appealing to those interested in developing a deep understanding of the evolution of popular music, this book promises that you’ll never hear “Blackbird”—and the Beatles—the same way again.

“[T]here’s much to be savored.”
Blackbird frequently makes productive connections between otherwise disparate cultural strands, thereby establishing a dialogic mosaic highlighting the ubiquity of bird imagery and its associated competing meanings. Interlinking religion, mythology, folklore, history, and art with chronologies of cross-cultural interpretations encompassing many geographical domains from an underexplored perspective, this book opens new critical space for consideration of race in African American and international Black creative contexts. Blackbird revises and reexamines relationships between the Beatles and Black cultures.”
“I do not believe this combination of artists and music has been treated anywhere else and applaud the authors for conceptualizing the subject in such an original way. Kapurch and Smith have combined the work of many artists to demonstrate the prevalence of songs based on birds and flight in the African American musical tradition, while also demonstrating the extent to which these same themes have appeared in the Beatles' oeuvre and Paul McCartney’s solo career.”

Katie Kapurch is Associate Professor of English at Texas State University. She is the author of Victorian Melodrama in the Twenty-First Century and the coeditor of New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles and The Beatles and Humour.

Jon Marc Smith is Senior Lecturer of English at Texas State University. His publications include scholarship on race and gender in popular music, literature, and film, and a novel, Make Them Cry, coauthored with Smith Henderson.

Foreword—Cyrus Cassells


Introduction: Change the History; The Blackbird in Song,

Story, and Transatlantic Flight

1. Flee (Free) as a Bird: The Legacy of the Ring Shout, Flying Africans, and Gospel in Black Music and the Beatles

2. Sing a Song of Blackbird: Pre-Twentieth-Century Transatlantic Flights in Black Music, the Beatles, and Liverpool

3. I’m a Little Blackbird: Florence Mills, Blackbirds of the Harlem Renaissance, and the Beatles’ Jazz Age Predecessors

4. Flying Across the Ocean: Lead Belly, “Grey Goose,” and the Beatles’ Liverpool Skiffle Scene

5. You Can Fly Away: Lord Woodbine and Lord Kitchener, “Yellow Bird,” and Calypso in the Beatles’ Liverpool Club Scene

6. You Ain’t Ever Gonna Fly: Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and Revolutionary Responses to the Beatles

7. A Blackbird on a White Album: Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, and Other Winged Inspirations in and around 1968

8. Like a Bird Up in the Sky: Billy Preston Flies to the Beatles in London and Circles Back to Los Angeles with “Blackbird”

9. Y’all Ready, Girls? “Blackbird” Soars in San Francisco with Sylvester, Two Tons O’ Fun, and the Band

10. I Was Just Seeing Myself Singing: Bettye LaVette on Interpreting the Beatles and Singing a Bridge of Blackbirds

Conclusion: Twenty-First-Century “Blackbird” in Paul McCartney’s Legend, for #BlackLivesMatter, and into Transoceanic Flightpaths