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Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: The legacy of a masterpiece

Whatever it was that was blowing in the wind when the track weaved its way into a young Bob Dylan’s ever-expanding consciousness back in the early summer of 1962 before its world-changing release the year later, it certainly carried along the future like an adrenalised tumbleweed trying to catch up. He was 22 years old when his mystic words were pressed onto record and the virtues he extolled with perfect melody had even escaped old Father Time. 

The beauty of the track deserves a mausoleum of its own, but the building next door should be dedicated to its legacy—that is the true definition of timelessness, the dominos are still tumbling from this age-defining paean for humanity. Within a year, the first ripple would be felt when Sam Cooke took inspiration and penned the defining civil rights anthem.

Dylan’s record had a tragic prescience to it. Lines like, “How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they’re forever band?” forecasted that further violence would come to pass before someone put a pause on things. This came to the fore a matter of months later with the Freedom Summer of 1964 during which six murders, 29 shootings, 50 bombings and 60 beatings of Civil Rights workers occurred during a bloody 14-week period between mid-June and the end of September. 

On June 21st, three Civil Rights workers disappeared. It would subsequently be found that Mississippi law officers murdered them; it would also later come to light that approximately half of Mississippi’s law enforcement officers were associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Cannonballs were flying but still, Dylan’s anthem was not subsumed by the violence, like the wind he croaks about, the song still wove its way around things. 

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“I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan,” L.C. Cooke, Sam’s younger brother and musical collaborator told the BBC. “Sam always said a black man should’ve wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, it was unfair. So, he said ‘Nah, if he can write a song like that surely, I can come up with something equally as good’, so he sat down to write ‘A Change Gonna Come’. He was trying to write an anthem to compete with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” L.C. continues, “And ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is a great song, so he sat down to write ‘I was born by the river’.”

The reaction that Sam Cooke had was one that was mimicked by plenty of other artists. In some ways, part of its brilliance is that it was touched with obscurity. This meant that people had to ask the lowly folk artist about it, and his responses are as much a part of the legacy of the song as the track itself. As Dylan decreed: “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.”

There were some people who were sitting on the side lines and Dylan’s remarks alongside the track encouraged them to use their own voice and to hell with commercial viability. Motown, for instance, had a steadfast rule that artists should not become politically engaged. However, in 1966, Stevie Wonder was so moved by the song that he continually angled his way to defying the boss Berry Gordy Jr and laying down a cover even though he was only 16. 

The Beatles would also hear the track and be walloped with the realisation that they had to up their game. They might not have become political in a perfunctory sense, but they did ditch hand-holding for spiritualism. As John Lennon said of the song: “[It] wasn’t ever that political, really […] It’s only the constant necessity to identify and label people for the media and public. Maybe millions of people have been born again and then forgotten all about it next Friday. It just so happens that Dylan did it in public.”

And this is where the true potential of the song lingered—it was spiritual, poetic and stark all at once in one big Promethean middle finger to everything else. Thus, the fact it initially floundered in the charts is a moot point. Why would it soar? He was the original vagabond who had just emerged from some dive bar basement with a hoarse throat and a distinct lack of hip-shaking.  

But those that heard it couldn’t ignore it. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary is one of those early folks who heard it and he commented: “[Dylan’s] writing put Peter, Paul and Mary on another level. We heard his demos and Albert [Grossman] thought the big song was ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ but we went crazy over ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’ We instinctively knew the song carried the moment of its own time. He was rising so fast over anybody else, in the level of poetry and expression, to a shatteringly brilliant level.” By August their cover was released, and it rose to number two with sales exceeding the one million mark. The Dylan cat was out of the bag. 

Soon he would be alongside Martin Luther King Jr singing similar tales of unison and reason. And years later he would play it in front of Pope John Paul II  and 300,000 other fans with the Catholic Leader commenting: “You say the answer is blowing in the wind, my friend. So it is.” As Yarrow added: “He was just a fountain of brilliance, of poetry. And he was as a person just a normal human being.” Not bad for a normal guy using his voice, others would soon follow. 

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