Blowin’ in the Wind

The Gaslight Cafe

Blowin’ in the Wind‘ is a song written by Bob Dylan in 1962 and released as a single and on his album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ in 1963. It has been described as a protest song, and poses a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war, and freedom. The refrain ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’ has been described as ‘impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind.’

The song was published for the first time in May 1962, in the sixth issue of Broadside, the magazine founded by Pete Seeger and devoted to topical songs. The theme may have been taken from a passage in folk singer Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, ‘Bound for Glory,’ in which Guthrie compared his political sensibility to newspapers blowing in the winds of New York City streets and alleys. Dylan was certainly familiar with Guthrie’s work; his reading of it had been a major turning point in his intellectual and political development.

In June 1962, the song was published in ‘Sing Out!, accompanied by Dylan’s comments: ‘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 wars … You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.’

In his sleeve notes for ‘The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991,’ British journalist, noted as one of the foremost experts on the work of Bob Dylan, John Bauldie wrote that folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger first identified the melody of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as an adaptation of the old African-American spiritual ‘No More Auction Block/We Shall Overcome.’ According to Alan Lomax’s ‘The Folk Songs of North America,’ the song originated in Canada and was sung by former slaves who fled there after Britain abolished slavery in 1833. In 1978, Dylan acknowledged the source when he told journalist Marc Rowland: ”Blowin’ in the Wind’ has always been a spiritual. I took it off a song called ‘No More Auction Block’ – that’s a spiritual and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ follows the same feeling.’ Dylan’s performance of ‘No More Auction Block’ was recorded at the Gaslight Cafe in October 1962, and appeared on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.

Critic Michael Gray suggested that the lyric is an example of Dylan’s incorporation of Biblical rhetoric into his own style. A particular rhetorical form deployed time and again in the New Testament and based on a text from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel (12:1–2) is: ‘The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Oh mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed. They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not.’ In ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ Dylan transforms this into ‘Yes’n’ how many ears must one man have …?’ and ‘Yes’ n’ how many times must a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn’t see?’

‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ has been described as an anthem of the civil rights movement. In Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan, ‘No Direction Home,’ Mavis Staples expressed her astonishment on first hearing the song and said she could not understand how a young white man could write something that captured the frustration and aspirations of black people so powerfully. Sam Cooke was similarly deeply impressed by the song, incorporating it into his repertoire soon after its release (a version would be included on Sam Cooke at the Copa), and being inspired by it to write ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’

‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was first covered by the Chad Mitchell Trio, but their record company delayed release of the album containing it because the song included the word death, so the trio lost out to Peter, Paul and Mary, who were represented by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. The single sold a phenomenal 300,000 copies in the first week of release and made the song world-famous.

An allegation that the song was written by a high-school student named Lorre Wyatt (a member of Millburn High School’s ‘Millburnaires’ all-male folk band) and subsequently purchased or plagiarized by Dylan before he gained fame was reported in an article in ‘Newsweek’ magazine in November 1963. The plagiarism claim was eventually shown to be untrue.

The song has been embraced by many liberal churches, and in the 1960s and 1970s it was sung both in Catholic church ‘folk masses’ and as a hymn in Protestant ones. In 1997, Bob Dylan performed three other songs at a Catholic church congress. Pope John Paul II, who was in attendance, told the crowd of some 300,000 young Italian Catholics that the answer was indeed ‘in the wind’ – not in the wind that blew things away, but rather ‘in the wind of the spirit’ that would lead them to Christ. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI (who had also been in attendance) wrote that he was uncomfortable with music stars such as Dylan performing in a church environment.

In 2009, Dylan licensed the song to be used in an advertisement for the British consumer-owned Co-Operative Group. The Co-Op claimed that Dylan’s decision was influenced by ‘the Co-Op’s high ethical guidelines regarding fair trade and the environment.’ The Co-Op, which is owned by about 3 million consumers, also includes Britain’s largest funeral parlour and farming business.

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