Dear Straight Dope:
Several of us have spent time online and in the library looking for information about the blackbird in the song, "Bye Bye Blackbird." We find lyrics and information about who sang it, but there is no mention of who or what the blackbird is. The only reference we found is that "blackbird" was a slang term for a slave, but that hardly makes sense in the song's lyrics. If "somebody waits for me" why am I telling her "bye bye"? Any ideas?
It seems like something’s missing from this song because there is.
Eddie Cantor, Carmen McCrae, Frank Sinatra and 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 (melody) and Mort Dixon (lyrics) are far less known. Here is the first of the two "missing" 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.
So there’s no slavery symbolism here, especially considering the song was written in 1926 by two white guys. But is the blackbird just a black bird?
No. The lyrics were written with heavy-handed symbolism and can be interpreted pretty easily. 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 big city.
Whoever the singer is, he/she is tired of whatever they’ve left home for and 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.
We hope we’ve given you what you wanted. Whenever the Teeming Millions ask questions, we at the Straight Dope are always happy to give them the bird.
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