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

13 March 2021 | PAUL ZOLLO | American Songwriter |

James Porteous

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 form, which had two verses only, the first and the third as we know it now. The middle verse was added later. It was at Gerde’s that he first performed it, and the word circulated through the village and beyond about the new kid with that amazing song. Pete Seeger was the first person to bring “Blowing In The Wind” to the world in a big way by publishing its lyrics in his Broadside magazine.

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 groups and artists were always looking out for a great song to record for their folk audiences. 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 Peter, Paul & Mary. That legendary folk trio of Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers  became one of the most successful and beloved  folk groups ever. They all followed in the folk tradition of Pete & Woody – and Peter Yarrow became somewhat of an apostle for Pete, sharing his folk gospel and wisdom with the world – but were also a great 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, and many historic events.

Of these, none was as monumental or profound 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, a real-time wind blowing with the lyrical one, in front of the Lincoln monument. 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.


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