Can you imagine Johnny Cash without “I Walk the Line?” Woody Guthrie without “This Land is Your Land?” The Beatles without “Twist and Shout?” Nirvana without “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” The Rolling Stones without “Satisfaction?” Would there have been a Velvet Underground without “Sweet Jane?” A Pearl Jam without “Alive?”
Just like you can’t have Leonardo Da Vinci without The Mona Lisa, you can’t have Bob Dylan without “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s the Dylan song that gripped a nation, and, beyond that, a globe. It’s the song that encapsulated the concerns of a generation, blew the minds of musicians, and lionized the activists. The song that became the anthem of the civil rights movement. The song best fit for the time capsules of humanity.
Without “Blowin’ In the Wind,” there might have never been a Bob Dylan; only Robert Zimmerman, toiling in obscurity. It’s the cherry on top of the Bob Dylan sundae, the Trojan horse that lead him into the hearts of sleeping Dylanologists. It’s not the best song. It’s not the worst song. It’s the number one song.
It’s a piece of folk music, so it belongs to the people, to be sung at rallies, reprinted in textbooks (in one instance, replacing Shakespeare), and translated into dozens of languages. It’s plain, sing-song melody is perfect for what it is — a singalong. A folk standard. But the rise and fall of his voice as he sings the four lines in each verse contains the DNA for how countless Bob Dylan songs would go – from “The Times They Are A Changin'” to “The Gates of Eden” and beyond.
Andy Gill, author of the Dylan study “My Back Pages,” writes, “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ marked a huge jump in Dylan’s songwriting. Prior to this, efforts like ‘The Ballad of Donald White’ and ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ had been fairly simplistic bouts of reportage songwriting. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was different: for the first time, Dylan discovered the effectiveness of moving from the particular to the general. Whereas ‘The Ballad of Donald White’ would become completely redundant as soon as the eponymous criminal was executed, a song as vague as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ could be applied to just about any freedom issue. It remains the song with which Dylan’s name is most inextricably linked, and safeguarded his reputation as a civil libertarian through any number of changes in style and attitude.”
There was nothing in “Blowin’ in the Wind” that would suggest that, a few years later, he’d be writing “Desolation Row” and “It’s Alright Ma” — the song’s “Yes’n” device is pure Woody Guthrie/Ramblin Jack Elliott, and the lyrics are simple and plain spoken. But there is an essential Dylanness to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a zen spirit that Guthrie, as well as Dylan influence Jack Kerouac, could surely appreciate.
“I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in ten minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records,” Dylan told the LA Times. “That’s the folk tradition. You use what’s been handed down.”
During the folk music revival of the early 60s, the idea was not to write new songs, but to unearth old ones. Groups like the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul and Mary were popular with college students not for their poetic prowess, but for their covers of songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Tom Dooley.” Dylan had tried to go the traditional covers route, with an underrated album called Bob Dylan, and it didn’t work out. No one bought it. But it did contain two Dylan originals, and it hinted at a future as a songwriter, if not a performer.
Dylan would soon change every one’s mind by recording The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the album “Blowin’ in the Wind'” appears on, and his “real” debut as an artist. That one sold like hotcakes, and always will. But for the moment, his fate seemed uncertain. He recorded a bunch of songs for others to sing in hopes of taking them to the charts. One of those songs was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Pretty soon, everybody would want a piece of it.
On April 16, 1962, the night he debuted it live at Gerde’s Folk City, it was covered shortly after by folk artist Gil Turner, who said “I’ve got to do that song for myself! now!”
Dylan associate David Blue sets the scene:
Bob showed him the chords and Gil roughly learned the words. He took the copy Bob made for him and went upstairs. We followed, excited by the magic that was beginning to spread. Gil mounted the stage and taped the words on to the mike stand. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I’d like to sing a new song by one of our great songwriters. It’s hot of the pencil and here it goes.”He sang the song, sometimes straining to read the words off the paper. When he was through, the entire audience stood on its feet and cheered.
“Blowin’ In the Wind” would soon spread like wildfire. When Folkway’s Moe Asch released the first album of topical songs on Broadside Records, it featured the very first recording of Blowing In the Wind – by local folk group the New World Singers.
The NWS’s Bob Cohen weaves the tale:
The New World Singers, a group that some thought might one day inherit the mantle of the Weavers, were at that time myself, Gil Turner, Delores Dixon and Happy Traum. Delores was a black woman, a New York City school teacher who had a deep alto voice.
In our set at Gerde’s Folk City, Delores would step forward in the middle of the set and sing solo “No More Auction Block For Me” – a very moving song of freedom written during slavery times, insisting “no more, no more” and sadly reflecting on the “many thousands gone.” She sang it with spirit and determination. Alan Lomax, calling it “Many Thousands Gone” writes: “This is one of the spirituals of resistance (W.E.B. Dubois called them ‘Sorrow Songs’), whose ante-bellum origin has been authenticated. Runaway slaves who fled as far north as Nova Scotia, after Britain abolished slavery in 1833, transmitted it to their descendents, and it is still in circulation there. At the time of the Civil War an abolitionist took it down from Negro Union soldiers.” (p. 450, Lomax, Alan – Folksongs of North America, Doubleday, 1960).
Dylan liked our group. In his recent memoir: “Chronicles Vol. I” he writes: “…with my sort of part-time girl-friend, Delores Dixon, the girl singer from The New World Singers, a group I was pretty close with. Delores was from Alabama, an ex-reporter and an ex-dancer.” – p. 64) – and then when I met Delores about ten years later, she remarked that Dylan had gone home with her one night and the next morning he was working on “Blowin’ in the Wind” and she said to him: “Bobby, you just can’t do that” (take the melody of that traditional song and write new words to it – it’s a scene similar to the scene in the Ray Charles bio pix when Ray’s new wife tells Ray that he just can’t take an old Gospel song she sang in her group and make it into a love song.) Both Bob and Ray preceded anon.
So one day soon after that, Dylan says to us: “Hey, I got this new song” and we go down to the basement at Gerdes (filled with rats, roaches and other folkies) and he sings his new song: “Blowin’ In the Wind”which was based on the melody of “No More Auction Block”. In those days we spoke of “borrowing” tunes, something Pete Seeger called “the folk process”. Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill and even J.S.Bach had done it. We thought it was great and started to sing it. We would bring Dylan up on that postage stamp of a stage to sing it along with us. It seemed to me then as it does now that his re-working or recreation of that spiritual carried on its original message and was in itself a song of resistance to all the injustice in the world. We would go on to sing it in Mississippi in 1963-64 where it became a civil-rights anthem.
In June 1962, the song was published in Sing Out! magazine, with Dylan’s written introduction:
“There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind-and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know …and then it flies away I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many …You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.”
To some, “Blowin’ in the Wind” represented a philosophical question. To others, it was more urgent. Mavis Staples has said she was astonished that a song that so encapsulated the feelings of African Americans suffering the injustices of racial segregation and prejudice was written by a white musician.
Joan Baez remembers : “I don’t remember the exact first time, but I remember leaving Gerde’s Folk City in New York City, and I heard Bob do it, maybe not the first time, but he had just written it.And I got into a cab and I was so excited. Bob put me in the cab, actually, and I drove off and I wanted the world to know I’d been in on this phenomenal episode, this incredible new song. And I was trying [laughs] to tell the New York cab driver about it. “You wouldn’t believe this. I mean, this is amazing. This is real poetry.” [laughs] He said, “Does it rhyme?” [laughs] I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Okay.” [laughs] He wasn’t impressed. But something in me knew, probably, it was one of the songs that would last forever.”
It was Peter, Paul, and Mary who would really put the song over, setting it to three part harmony, which sweetened it enough to be considered chart worthy. Their single of the song sold 300,000 copies in the first week of it’s release. it was a hit! by July, it had reached number 2 on the singles chart, with a million copies sold.
Soon everybody wanted the song’s author, Bobby Dylan, to come to their event, make a statement, and play “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The reception to this song and the pressure to write another one couldn’t have hurt in Dylan’s decision to shuffle up the cards, to keep evolving, and not look back.
Now over 45 years old, the song has never lost its luster. In 1999, National Public Radio included this song in the “NPR 100,” which compiled the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century. Rolling Stone ranked it at #14 on their list of the 500 best rock songs, (“Like a Rolling Stone” was number 1), the second highest slot for a Dylan song on the list. Neil Young performed it frequently in concert in the early 90’s, to protest the Gulf War.
Peter Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow, who would reappear during another key moment in Dylan’s career (mc’ing the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan “sold out” by going electric), said of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “It is precisely because Bobby was a poet that he invited people to particpate in the definition of what his message truly was. And like a true poet, I think he stepped back from prescribing an interpretation.”
Once “Blowin’ In the Wind” was absorbed into the national consciousness, Dylan’s life was irreparably changed. His deepest, most piercing visions would come from living the rock and roll lifestyle, and that lifestyle was about to become a reality. All of his experiences, he would write about, in one form or another, from the stage to the basement to the family room to the tour bus, until he was the guy singing about his wife’s hometown and having the blood of the land in his voice. The master musician still closes his concerts with this song, singing it the way only he could; on a never-ending tour, taking us with him, from Honolulu to Ashtabula, together through life.