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Paul McCartney singing

Paul McCartney, Times of Trouble, and “Let It Be”

November 16, 2023

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In a new podcast McCartney: A Life in Lyrics, Sir Paul McCartney talks about his most famous songs with the poet Paul Muldoon. The podcast is aimed at “dissecting the people, experiences, and art that inspired McCartney’s songwriting.” A recent episode explored the meaning of the lyrics of the title song of the Beatles’ last album, “Let it Be.” 

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

The song arose in times of trouble. War raged in Vietnam, riots rocked the Chicago Democratic convention, and students protested all over the world. Rev. Martin Luther King, as well as presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, both died by the bullets of assassins. It was a time of trouble for McCartney personally, as the Beatles were fighting over finances and heading for their breakup at the end of what he called “the crazy sixties.” 

Mary’s “let it be” (her fiat) is her consent to God’s mysterious plan for her in times of trouble.

But then McCartney found consolation. Although his mother Mary Patricia McCartney had died years earlier when the singer was only fourteen-years-old, she appeared vividly alive to him in a dream. She said to him, “Let it be.” He awoke, comforted and calm. The song “Let It Be” arose from this experience.

Sir Paul realized later that he had actually encountered an inspiration for this song earlier in his life. As a school boy, a favorite and formative teacher made him memorize passages from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In the play, the Danish prince Hamlet finds himself in times of trouble as “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and war looms with Norway. Hamlet’s father, Denmark’s king, has died suddenly. His uncle Claudius had taken both Hamlet’s widowed mother in marriage and the throne of Denmark. Hamlet intends to kill Claudius, and Claudius intends to kill Hamlet. McCartney connects the lyrics of “Let It Be” with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. 

Is it better to be alive or not to be? To be suffering or to be in the sleep of the dead? To be or not to be? The answer, McCartney says, is to “let it be.” 

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But there is a still earlier inspiration for the song. In the podcast, McCartney notes, “I called her ‘Mother Mary’ rather than ‘my mom Mary.’ I knew enough to know, okay, we have a sort of double meaning going here.” This spiritual meaning of “let it be” arises from Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus. She found herself in times of trouble. The Roman Empire occupied her homeland, and there was constant talk of revolution, violent uprising, and conflict between Jews and Samaritans in the Middle East. Then, the Gospel of Luke recounts, an angel appears to her. She is greatly troubled at his message: she will conceive a son. How can this be? She is a virgin. If she is found pregnant before marriage, what will her fiancé Joseph do? What will happen to her? Despite the difficulties, doubts, and distress of her situation, she responds to the angel, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s “let it be” (her fiat) is her consent to God’s mysterious plan for her in times of trouble.

This spiritual meaning of the song arises in part because Paul and his brother Michael were, at their mother’s insistence, baptized as Catholics. Paul says, “We’d been christened (baptized) to save our immortal souls which I was always rather pleased with. I’m glad. . . . I thank her for doing that.” To be baptized is to be a brother or a sister of Christ. To be baptized is to be a child of Mother Mary. To be baptized is to be invited to cooperate with God’s mysterious plan for us and, in times of trouble, to whisper words of wisdom:

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be.