Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Blowing In The Wind: Pretty Straightforward, Isn't It? Or Is It?

Proverbial wisdom: the accumulated ethical values of ordinary people in early modern England

Young Bob (Illus. by the author)
Bob Dylan wrote this timeless song in 1962, the year he turned 21. It appeared on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in 1963.

I frequently like to examine what young Dylan was doing and compare it to what was happening in the popular culture. Some of the "big hits" of 1962, when he wrote this, included The Twist (Chubby Checker), Mashed Potato Time (Dee Dee Sharp), I Can't Stop Loving You (Ray Charles), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), and Stranger on the Shore at #1 by Acker Bilk. 

Dylan first performed a two verse version of this song at Gerde's Folk City (See Peter McKenzie's book (Bob Dylan: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day) for more details about this time in the young singer/songwriter's life. The date of that performance was in April, so he was still twenty.

The past few days a group of Airstreamers has been in town on a journey from the North Country here down into the deep roots of the blues, taking in the Crossroads, Memphis and other historic places from music history. One of them mentioned to me how she didn't know, like many others, that "Blowin' in the Wind" was not written by Peter, Paul & Mary.

The song has been recorded extensively by other artists including a German version by none other than Marlene Dietrich. 

Much has been written about this song through the decades and it's message never seems to grow stale. By means of a few simple questions it forcefully cuts to the root of a number of issues. 27 years later Dylan would use this same technique of asking questions in a lyrical format, except the questions are turned inward. "What good am I if I'm like all the rest, if I just turn away when I see how you're dressed?" ("What Good Am I?", Oh Mercy) This rhetorical style is repeated two tracks later in the song "What Was It You Wanted?" There's nothing ambiguous about the first, and plenty of fog, shadow and mist in the second.

Blowin' in the Wind

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand? *
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
And how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

© 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special Rider Music

* * * 

A lot has been written about this song. You can learn more about nearly any song on Wikipedia. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Ten years later it held the #14 position in Rolling Stones' 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

* "And the dove came in to him at eventide; and, lo, in her mouth an olive-leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth." --Genesis 8:11

Related Links

A Visit with Peter McKenzie, Author of Bob Dylan: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day (Part One)


ill-starred man said...

'What Was It You Wanted' is really an exercise in sarcasm...'was it something important...maybe not.' It really is funny! I guess all those years of dumb interviews asking him questions about his favourite artists etc led to him responding with this kind of caustic irreverence. It's similar to Ballad Of A Thin man in that regard. Love the 'John Wesley Harding' style thin harmonica style too.
'What Good Am I' is every bit as powerful (and Biblical) in it's own way as 'Blowin in the wind' - both songs use questions to prompt people to think about their own prejudices, their own self-deception. Truth telling like this was always Dylan's speciality subject.

Ed Newman said...

True, that one is of a different character ("What Was It You Wanted?" than the other two.
Interesting take to see it as a response to interviewers' dumb questions, but one can see it that way.
I have (a few times) wondered what I would ask Bob if I had a chance to interview him. I've sometimes thought that I would not want to be lumped in with all those who have asked dumb questions, like "How does it feel (to be Bob Dylan)?"
Thanks for the note.

Unknown said...

If you meet Bob Dylan Ed, don't ask questions, on the contrary tell him you have a story to tell and he will stop and listen to you and start to ask you questions... As you are good at telling tales the conversation might last a long while!

Ed Newman said...

That is actually pretty good advice.... I will pocket that, in the event the time should come...