Although Paul McCartney wrote Hey Jude, the song is credited to Lennon-McCartney. It was recorded and released in 1968. That recorded version, performed by The Beatles and showing the lyrics, is here.
The ballad evolved from “Hey Jules”, a song widely accepted as being written to comfort John Lennon’s son, Julian, during his parents’ divorce. “Hey Jude” begins with a verse-bridge structure based around McCartney’s vocal performance and piano accompaniment; further instrumentation is added as the song progresses to distinguish sections. After the fourth verse, the song shifts to a fade-out coda that lasts for more than four minutes.
The song took on additional and varied meaning. Hey Jude was released at a time when racial tension was raging in the US. Earlier that year, American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, and there was much turmoil in American music among black and white musicians in the immediate aftermath of the tragic loss. There were efforts to bridge the gaps in the new genre of music at that time known as Southern Rock.
There is a BBC Documentary on the development of Southern Rock, called Sweet Home Alabama – The Southern Rock Saga. While watching this, I learned about the history and recording of another version of Hey Jude, performed by Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman in 1969, just months after its release. It is an example of musicians as activists, in a peaceful demonstration that music, as well as tragedy, are colorblind. Please give it a listen, because it is difficult to find a song that is so deeply moving:
In addition to Wilson Pickett singing with beauty and passion, and Duane on electric slide guitar, this song also has ” “arguably the greatest soul horn section ever,” the Memphis Horns. Wilson Pickett balked when Duane suggested they attempt this version of Hey Jude. Pickett finally agreed, and other musicians were stunned when they listened.
Wilson Pickett (March 18, 1941 – January 19, 2006), who sings this version of Hey Jude, grew up in Alabama singing in Baptist choirs. From Wiki:
A major figure in the development of American soul music, Pickett recorded over 50 songs which made the US R&B charts, and frequently crossed over to the US Billboard Hot 100. Among his best known hits are “In the Midnight Hour” (which he co-wrote), “Land of 1,000 Dances”, “Mustang Sally”, and “Funky Broadway”.
The impact of Pickett’s songwriting and recording led to his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This recording was a turning point for Duane Allman, who is immortalized as one of the greatest rock guitarists in American history. As you know, Duane passed away following a motorcycle accident in Georgia, in 1971. The loss was particularly difficult for younger brother Gregg. Gregg was scholastically studious and had plans to go to medical school. Duane was artistically motivated, and dropped out of high school to spend all of his time studying music. Gregg agreed to give the music a couple of years and then return to his studies. When Duane died, everyone looked to Gregg. He reports saying (interview linked above), “Don’t look at me, I just happen to have the same last name.”
I cannot imagine a world without music and the arts, and sometimes taking a second look at a classic makes it possible to return home in a world where one can generally never go home again. The song Hey Jude, with its iconic lyric, “Take a sad song and make it better,” is a source of great comfort during and time of loss or discomfort.
In 1997, as a benefit to the victims of a volcano on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat, notable musicians Paul McCartney, Elton John, Sting, Mark Knoffler, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and others gathered and performed Hey Jude live during the concert. That performance is here: