“Eleanor Rigby” is one of the songs in The Beatle’s arsenal with a hint of mystery surrounding its origin story. Songwriter, Paul McCartney has claimed that the song was not based around a real person, however, some leads say otherwise. Despite the nature of the origin story, “Eleanor Rigby” stays one of the most influential and timeless classics in music history.
“Eleanor Rigby” was released as a single paired with “Yellow Submarine” on August 5, 1966. The song is part of The Beatles’ seventh studio album ‘Revolver’ from 1966. This song also marks, among other songs, a shift in the experimental direction of music by the band, from rock, and rock-n-roll, to more pop and string instruments.
The song was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1966, and won for ‘Best Contemporary (R&R) Vocal Performance.’ The song is also ranked at #138 on The Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Paul McCartney talked about creating the song and coming up with the name;
I wrote “Eleanor Rigby” when I was living in London and had a piano in the basement. I used to disappear there, and while I was fiddling on a chord some words came out: “Dazzie-de-da-zu picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been…” This idea of someone picking up rice after a wedding took it in that poignant direction, into a “lonely people” direction.
I had a bit of trouble with the name, and I’m always keen to get a name that sounds right.We were working with Eleanor Bron on [the film] Help! and I liked the name Eleanor; it was the first time I’d ever been involved with that name. I saw “Rigby” on a shop in Bristol when I was walking round the city one evening … so it became “Eleanor Rigby”.
I thought I swear, that I made up the name Eleanor Rigby like that … But it seems that up in Woolton Cemetery, where I used to hang out a lot with John, there’s a gravestone to an Eleanor Rigby. It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious.
The second main character in the song is ‘Father McKenzie.’ John Lenon, co-writer of the song wanted to name him ‘Father McCartney.’ However, Paul McCartney was reluctant; “‘No, it’s my dad! Father McCartney… but I didn’t want to sing that, it was too loaded, it asked too many questions. I wanted it to be anonymous.”
Was Eleanor Rigby a Real Person?
There are two real-life evidences that suggest Eleanor Rigby was real.
NPR magazine points us at one Annie Mawson who received a letter from Paul McCartney in response to her 11-page letter to McCartney. In the response letter is a parchment from 1911 with a roll call of names. In the list of names was one ‘E. Rigby,’ a scullery maid, who received her salary and signed for it as well.
The second piece of evidence is at a graveyard at the St. Peter’s Parish Church in Woolton, Liverpool. On one of the gravestones is the name ‘Eleanor Rigby’ carved on it, wife of one Thomas Woods. The surreal connection of this place to Paul McCartney is it being the place where McCarney first met John Lennon in 1957. An article on BBC claims that the scullery maid above and this gravestone belongs to the same person, thus manifesting some strong evidence towards the mysterious Eleanor Rigby’s reality.
A few meters away from this gravestone is another gravestone with the name ‘McKenzie’ on it.
When McCartney was later asked about his awareness of these gravestones, he claimed that he did not.
Listen to “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles
“Eleanor Rigby” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
Despite the origin story of the song, “Eleanor Rigby” is a song about loneliness and aimlessness in the world. These messages are driven through the lives of a maid, Eleanor Rigby, and Father McKenzie.
The Beatles dives straight into the meaning of the song; “Ah, look at all the lonely people!.”
The Beatles were not far from reality when they sang about all the lonely people in the world, surrounded by 7 billion people. This is one of those times when quality over quantity matters. But sometimes even a good friend cannot cure the loneliness within a person. In this age of technology and social media, loneliness and depression are at the highest levels. Many people feel lost without purpose, guidance, and motivation. If you feel this way, it’s never too late to reach out.
The Beatles bring in the infamous character of Eleanor Rigby into the song. Paul McCartney narrates a scene where Miss Rigby is picking/cleaning the rice on the floor at a church after a wedding. It is customary for guests to throw rice/confetti over the departing couple. The sad reality of this scene is that Eleanor Rigby is so alone that she has no chance of getting married. The closest she gets to a wedding is that of a stranger, and even that, after the ceremony is over.
McCartney adds that Miss Rigby “lives in a dream,” which makes sense. The fact that Eleanor Rigby (possibly) volunteers to clean up after others’ weddings at a church suggests that she, too, wants to be wedded someday. She just tries to live closest to her dream as possible.
The line “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” has a lot to say about Eleanor Rigby and anyone else who can relate to her. ‘Wearing a face’ is usually metaphorical for hiding your true self behind an artificial self. This can be done to hide one’s true identity, protect themselves from the outside world, and also to attract outsiders.
However, the inclusion of the line that the ‘face’ comes from a jar, suggests that it could also be make-up that comes in jars. Make-up is yet another instrument used to cover up your true self and put on a ‘better” version of yourself to the outside. Yes, it makes people more attractive. Could this be Eleanor Rigby’s only way of attracting some king of companionship?!
Also, the fact that she puts on her ‘artificial’ face and sits by the door, suggests that she is open and eagerly waiting for any companionship in her life.
Alternatively, the whole scene can also be seen as Eleanor Rigby sitting by a window (“in a jar)” by the door and looking outside at the people wandering in the street. Metaphorically, she is stuck inside the jar that is her house or room, and her only real-world interaction is through the window, which is blocked by an impenetrable layer of glass. Her world inside the jar can be her ‘reality’ whereas the world outside her door is her ‘dream,’ or even vice versa!
Watch Paul McCartney Perform “Eleanor Rigby” Live in 2019
In the chorus of the song, Paul McCartney raises two of the most surreal and incomprehensible questions of human existence. ‘Where do we come from’ and ‘where do we go?.’ The addition of the adjective ‘lonely’ people, only temporarily deviates us from the big picture. These two questions apply to all human beings. But, fortunately, or unfortunately, a person who is not lonely may never have to think about such questions. In contrast, a person who is lonely may ponder these questions frequently and to no avail.
In the second verse of the song, we come across the second character: Fathe McKenzie. Paul McCartney describes him as yet another lonely soul, despite being a religious leader in a community. However, no one comes to this church and Father McKenzie’s sermons are heard by no one.
McCartney also sings about how Father McKenzie mends his socks at night “when there’s nobody there.” This is a crucial revelation as McCartney specifically mentions that Father does his chores when nobody is there in the church. This means that there actually were people during his sermons in the day time. To ‘not hear’ a sermon while being present at the church during the sermon suggests that the message does not get through to the people.
If the Father’s messages do not reach the people despite being there, listening, this makes Father McKenzie lonesome in his efforts in this world. He is lonely because of the fact that he cannot get anyone to listen to his words.
In a nutshell, Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie are experiencing two different kinds of loneliness, and both are equally devastating.
In the third verse of the song, both characters of the song cross their paths. But, Eleanor Rigby is passed away and the funeral is held at Father McKenzie’s church. Unsurprisingly, there was nobody else present at the funeral, except for Father McKenzie.
If Rigby and Father McKenzie had crossed their paths earlier on, maybe they could have found some solace in each other.
Eleanor Rigby “Died in the church and was buried along with her name.” The fact that she was buried with her name suggests that no one will remember her after she is gone from this world. There is no legacy that she left behind, with no children or family to remember her name. It is as if with her death, her existence in this world was completely erased away.
The lyric “No one was saved” is a subtle jab at Christianity. One of the main beliefs in Christianity is the fact that you will be “saved” by a higher power if you are a follower of the religion. But the singer suggests that no one was saved–not Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie, and by extension not any other soul in the world. Maybe, the singer is suggesting that neither Miss Rigby nor Father McKenzie was saved from their loneliness.
“Eleanor Rigby” is a true deep dive into just one of the human conditions. Paul McCartney’s true story-telling genius is apparent all throughout the song.
Let us hear what you think about the song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics and further meaning breakdown on Genius.