Little Rock Nine and Paul McCartney React to Beyoncé’s ‘Blackbird’ Cover

McCartney was inspired to write the song after hearing about the battle to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957

Members of the Little Rock Nine studying
Members of the Little Rock Nine study together after being blocked from Little Rock Central High in 1957. Bettmann

Melba Pattillo Beals loved the Beatles’ 1968 hit “Blackbird” long before she knew she had helped inspire it, she tells the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick. Beals, now 82, was a member of the group of students known as the Little Rock Nine, who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957.

In 2016, songwriter Paul McCartney revealed that the story of the Little Rock Nine was a major inspiration for him as he wrote “Blackbird.”

“Way back in the ’60s, there was a lot of trouble going on over civil rights, particularly in Little Rock,” McCartney said before performing the song at a concert in the city, as Rolling Stone’s Daniel Kreps reported at the time. “We would see what was going on and sympathize with the people going through those troubles, and it made me want to write a song that, if it ever got back to the people going through those troubles, it might just help them a little bit.”

Beals was deeply touched by the musician’s words.

“Paul McCartney said by writing that song, ‘I hear you, I may not be able to rescue you, but I hear you singing in your dark,’” Beals tells the Washington Post.

Now, Beals—along with music lovers around the world—can listen to the White Album classic as sung by another larger-than-life musician: Beyoncé.

On March 29, Beyoncé released Cowboy Carter, the second installment of a trilogy project that began with 2022’s Renaissance. While Renaissance paid homage to the queer, Black legacy of disco and house music, Cowboy Carter tips its cowboy hat to country music, claiming space in a genre that has historically excluded Black artists, even though it has roots in Black music.

The second song on Cowboy Carter is “Blackbiird” (the ‘ii’ stylization nods to the album being “Act II” of the trilogy), a cover of McCartney’s original. Though “Blackbird” may not be the first song to come to mind when one thinks of country music, Beyoncé’s cover alludes to the genre through harmonic flourishes that feature four Black contemporary country artists: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts.

BLACKBIIRD (Official Lyric Video)

When Beals heard the new cover, she was immediately transported back to the ’50s. “This song awakens so much,” she tells the Washington Post.

In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Following that decision, the NAACP began attempting to enroll Black students in previously all-white schools in the South.

The news that nine Black students had been chosen to enroll in Little Rock Central High was met with outrage. When the students first tried to attend the school on September 4, 1957, they were confronted by a large white mob that was yelling threats and throwing stones. Soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard blocked the students from entering, defying the federal mandate to desegregate. After numerous thwarted attempts, the students started regularly attending Central High a few weeks later.

MacKenzie Green, the daughter of Ernest Green, another member of the Little Rock Nine, tells the Washington Post that the Beyoncé cover is “one of the coolest things that has ever happened.”

“Finally, this moment has arrived where they are being embraced and given their flowers,” she says, adding that she thinks “Blackbiird” will help preserve the memory of her father and the other students.

Beyoncé released Cowboy Carter, which features a cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird," on March 29. Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for the Recording Academy

On Thursday, McCartney uploaded a picture of him and Beyoncé to Instagram. In the caption, he called her cover a “magnificent version” that “reinforces the civil rights message that inspired me to write the song in the first place.” He wrote that Beyoncé had thanked him via FaceTime for letting her interpret the song.

“When I saw the footage on the television in the early ’60s of the Black girls being turned away from school, I found it shocking, and I can’t believe that still in these days there are places where this kind of thing is happening right now,” McCartney continued. “Anything my song and Beyoncé’s fabulous version can do to ease racial tension would be a great thing and makes me very proud.”

Beals hopes the song will remind listeners that the battle for racial equality remains urgent. “‘Blackbird’ is about the past, today and the future,” she tells NPR’s Juliana Kim, adding: “As long as there is a single individual on the planet who is not free, then none of us are free.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.