Behind The Song: “Blowing In The Wind” by Bob Dylan, Part I

Written by Dylan, it was a hit single by Peter, Paul & Mary, who performed it at the 1963 March on Washington in which MLK delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.

“This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that,” said Bob Dylan in 1962 before playing his new song. “‘cause I don’t write protest songs…I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.”

That song was “Blowing In The Wind,” the song that changed everything for Dylan, and established him as a kind of new Woody Guthrie, a natural-born genius from the heartland reflecting the real America in his songs, not the Broadway or Hollywood versions. Sure, he was a little rough and unscrubbed, as was Woody, and his voice was not conventional. But it was true, real and heartfelt, and his unchained brilliance shone.

Dylan said he wrote the original draft of the song, which had only the first and third verse, very quickly – in about ten minutes. The music was derived from the Negro spiritual “No More Auction Block.”  The lyric evoked biblical verse that posed a series of elemental questions about mankind, always with the same implied answer, that in time man must transcend the senseless inhumanity of war.

In April, 1962, after adding the middle verse, Dylan recorded it for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963. It was the first album that established him as a songwriter, featuring this and other powerful songs. His debut album had only two originals, a talking blues and “Song for Woody,” his song about his idol.

Like Woody, Dylan didn’t write songs only for himself to perform, but with the hope and aim that others would sing them. Before ever performing “Blowing In The Wind”in public, he played it privately for some influential folks in the folk community, including Gil Turner, who worked with Pete Seeger at Broadside magazine, and also hosted the weekly Hoot nights at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, where Dylan was first discovered. 

Gil loved the song, as did Pete, and they published its lyrics in Broadside in May of 1962, before any recording of it had been released. Sing Out! magazine followed their lead and also published the lyrics in June, 1962. 

Pete was also a great and savvy songwriter himself, and understood that writing socially-conscious message songs was a tricky endeavor. People want songs that lift them up, but don’t warm to anything too heavy, ponderous or pointed. But if a song is tunefully appealing and delivers its message delicately, it can connect with the culture in an immense, profound way. Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land,” like Lennon’s “Imagine,” both have quasi-Socialistic messages which many Americans reject, yet that message is so artfully crafted and wed to lyrically poignant melodies that both songs are universally loved. 

Pete recognized that “Blowing In The Wind” could become that kind of beloved universal song, still carrying its anti-war message but in a form both biblical and elegant. The song poses questions–albeit pointed ones– and allows the music, the spirit of the time, and the listeners, to answer those questions. 

It’s a structure which some have considered vague or intentionally ambiguous. But neither are really accurate, as the songwriter’s meaning comes across with clarity. Some have suggested that “the answer is blowing in the wind” means it’s something we can’t grasp, anymore than we can, to quote Donovan, catch the wind. 

Yet Dylan’s intention is not ambiguous at all. In each verse, he drives home the message, which echoes Jefferson’s famous words in the Constitution –  “some truths are self-evident.” These answers, Dylan writes, are self-evident, and as obvious and indisputable as the wind.  These lines do not leave the listener to decide on an issue. They don’t ask what is wrong or right, but how long will it take for people to wake up to the truth? That truth being that mankind needs to study war no more. And more specifically, that the weapons of battle must be retired forever (“How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned?”); that all humans have the right to a life of liberty  (“How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?); that ignoring inhumanity is not an answer (“How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?), and that far too many people have died through the ages in senseless battles (“How many deaths will it take ’till he knows/That too many people have died?”)

Before Dylan recorded the song, he performed it live several times in its original two -verse form, at Gerde’s. Back then, the folk community in New York City was a fairly close-knit group, and when a great song emerged, word about it circulated fast. Many folk artists were always looking out for a great song to record for their audience of folk purists, and Dylan delivered the perfect one.  

“It was a song that blew a lot of people away in the whole folk scene,” said Smithsonian curator Chad Place. 

The Chad Mitchell Trio recorded it first, but the song’s focus on the outcome of war – death – was deemed too dark by their record company, who stalled its release. 

At the time, Dylan was managed by Albert Grossman, who also managed and created Peter, Paul & Mary. He was the one that introduced Peter and Mary to Paul and encouraged them to team up. They became one of the most beloved  folk groups ever, and also commerciallty successful. Back then, contemporary folk was played on Top 40 radio if it was great, which they were. They had 19 songs in all that were Top 40 hits, including one that became a number one hit (“Leaving On A Jet Plane” by John Denver). “Blowing In The Wind” went to number two, never surpassing the number one hit of the time, “Fingertips, Part II” by Little Stevie Wonder. Reflecting the diversity of the Top 40 then was the number three hit, “Devil In Disguise” by Elvis Presley. That was the reality of radio in 1963: Peter, Paul & Mary singing Dylan inbetween Stevie Wonder and Elvis.

Although immensely successful on the charts, Peter, Paul & Mary never abandoned the folk purity which defined them. They all followed in the folk tradition of Pete & Woody creating socially-conscious songs for the people – and Peter Yarrow became somewhat of an apostle for Pete, sharing his folk gospel and wisdom with the world – but were also a trmendous harmony trio. Anything they ever performed was imbued with great heartfelt passion and energy, and remarkable vocal harmonies, as creatively brilliant with their harmony singing as Crosby, Stills & Nash, in terms of both the arrangement and execution.

Their harmonies would change with every verse, as virtuosically inventive as the songwriting itself. It was their recording of “Blowing In The Wind” that transformed it into a beloved and timeless anti-war anthem. Dylan’s melody, derived in Woody-style from an old folk song,   (a method that Pete Seeger called the “folk process,” which Woody’s son Arlo once joked is also called “plagiarism”) has a sweetly singable melody, without which this whole ship would sink.

But it’s a beautiful and buoyant tune (as appealing as those Woody wrote/adapted for his famous songs), and so catchy it can bring people in even if they have no understanding of the song’s meaning. 

Their version was not only popular, it was a major radio hit, climbing up to #2 on the pop charts. Yet the shining beauty of its message was not missed, as it became one of the most iconic anthems of the time. Peter, Paul & Mary performed it, as did Dylan, at many historic events. Of these, none was more monumental than Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, in which he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The trio  sang “Blowing In The Wind” in perfect harmony in front of the Lincoln monument, a real-time wind blowing with the lyrical one. At the moment, and ever since, there was no doubt about this song being too ambiguous and unclear. Its message rang out then as it has ever since. It is a song for the ages.

End of Part One.
See Part II here:
Behind The Song: Blowing in the Wind

Leave a Reply

SHAED Eye Debut LP ‘High Dive,’ Release New Song “Part Time Psycho”

Nick Jonas Talks Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and New Album ‘Spaceman’