Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “Bye Bye Blackbird”

by Roger Crane, the Song Scout

Background/Discussion

This is the twelfth in a series of articles addressing the beloved standards that comprise the Great American Songbook (GAS). Music for the 1926 “Bye Bye Blackbird,” is by Ray Henderson and the lyric by Mort Dixon. This entertaining song was immediately successful (four versions were hits in 1926) and become a fixture, particularly among jazz players. It has components that improvisers love in a standard: an infectious melody, beautiful chords, an elegant structure and enough space to “stretch out” creatively.
Due perhaps to Josephine Baker’s sassy Paris 1927 recording, leading up to World War II “Bye Bye Blackbird” was more popular in Europe than in the United States. During the war and the early postwar period, few pop or jazz versions were available in the US. But in 1948 “Bye Bye Blackbird” was recorded by Russ Morgan and his Orchestra and, beginning in the early 1950s, it gained significant attention via its appearance in the 1954 movie The Eddie Cantor Story and the 1955 Pete Kelly’s Blues. Peggy Lee, who received an Oscar nomination in the latter movie, recorded the song (although did not sing it on the screen). “Bye Bye Blackbird” got a bigger boost the following year when Miles Davis recorded a relaxed medium-tempo instrumental version with John Coltrane. Thanks, perhaps, to those Lee and Davis recordings more jazz versions were made in the three following years. In addition to the above two movies, “Bye Bye Blackbird” was also performed by Frankie Laine in the 1952 Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, Marilyn Monroe sang it in the 1954 River of No Return and Jerry Van Dykes sang the song in the Palm Springs Weekend (1963).
The song’s attraction to vocalists is easy to understand. The melody is full of repeated notes and has a very modest range of only a major seventh. The intervals and step-wise motion are easy for singers. But there is much speculation as to the meaning of Dixon’s carefree lyrics. Does “blackbird” refer to an antebellum slave or – according to one popular view – a prostitute leaving the business and going home to her mother. But these views make little sense when the verse is included.

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 thru the winter you hung around,
Now I begin to feel homeward bound.
Blackbird, blackbird, gotta be on my way,
Where there’s sunshine galore.

Additionally, the original sheet music has a picture of a typical 1920’s couple. He has his arm around a woman and with the other hand is waving to a blackbird up in a tree. Therefore it seems there is no hidden meaning or reference – at least in the artist’s opinion. So perhaps the more obvious literal (and ornithological) interpretation of the title-phrase is the best. In any case, Dixon’s lyric seems to endure due to its universal expression of the longing to pack up all one’s cares and return to “where somebody waits” for us, since “no one here can love or understand” us.

A Few Sample Recordings

INSTRUMENTAL VERSIONS

Pianist Keith Jarrett recorded the song a few times, generally extending it to ten or more minutes. Here is a live 13-minute trio version, complete with his iconic grunts.

2) The above-mentioned Miles and Coltrane eight-minute version
from the 1956 “Round About Midnight” recording.

If you wish to see how far a soloist can push this old Henderson melody listen to Albert Ayler’s 1963 recording.” My Name Is Albert Ayler,” (with a minute of spoken introduction)

VOCAL VERSIONS

One of the most interesting (and beautiful) versions is by Mel Torme with full orchestra and saxophonist Phil Woods. This 1977 recording was originally issued as Torme- a New Album but later re-titled The London Sessions. Torme once declared this to be “one of the finest albums I ever made.”

A slow sensuous version by Peggy Lee, from the 1955
Songs from Pete Kelly’s Blues

A film-noirish reading by pianist-singer Patricia Barber from
her 2000 Nightclub CD

With a Ralph Burns chart Carmen McRae takes it up-tempo. This is from her exquisite 1958 Birds of a Feather recording, enhanced by the glorious tenor of Ben Webster.

You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following.

Vocal versions by Bill Henderson, Julie London, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr. and Rosemary Clooney. Singers as diverse as Joe Cocker and the Ink Spots have also recorded the song.

Instrumental versions by Chet Baker, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Kenny Burrell, Chet Baker and trombonist Kai Winding.

Interestingly, two former Beatles have each recorded “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Ringo Starr for his 1970 album Sentimental Journey, and Paul McCartney for his 2012 album Kisses on the Bottom. Both men have commented that the song was one of many standards that they grew up singing with their families.

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