It’s quite possibly the greatest protest song of all time, but when Bob Dylan began recording ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ on this day in 1962 he wasn’t intent on creating a generation-defining anthem. In fact, later he said when performing the song for the first time, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.” He also claimed in the same performance to have written the song in under 10 minutes. Astounding.
Despite this introduction, Dylan must’ve been aware of how compelling the song became in the years that followed, witnessing it being sung across college campuses and the counter-culture hotspots. However, it wasn’t Dylan who had got it out on the radiowaves, that credit went to Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of the song.
By the time the musician recorded The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his focus had radically changed. Far from the cheeky and smirking teenager that had begun writing songs to sound like Woody Guthrie, Dylan now had a purpose, a viewpoint, and he wasn’t afraid to share it.
Much of that viewpoint was formed with the help of his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo—an active member of many different social justice campaigns. It was Rotolo who helped shape Dylan and point him towards the oppression and causes that were currently littering America’s civility.
It was after this realignment that Dylan had started to write protest songs in earnest but where previous efforts ‘The Ballad of Don White’ and ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ were direct and confrontational, they lacked complexity. Too simplistic and politically charged they only truly found favour with the societal circle that frequented the coffee houses in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Dylan needed to move away from the particular and toward the general, finding a larger audience for his message. He did so by expanding the theme itself as well as clouding it with the poetic imagery of old. No longer was Dylan able to write a pointed letter and sing it with his guitar, he now needed to write beautiful songs with a message. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was his first foray.
“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,” said Dylan of the song in 1962. It’s this line, plus a few more, that offer up the track’s sentimental core. It provides so much and yet so little, encouraging the audience to get engaged and pay attention.
“Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that,” Dylan continued in 1962. “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.”
The lyrics were poetic and deliberately ambiguous but they still offered a hint at the singer’s intent. “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man,” was a seemingly clear reference to the civil rights movement. While “How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand,” was a reference to the youth’s pursuit of overseas peace amid continued American conflict.
It was Dylan’s way of offering up the mirror for some internal reflection, “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.”
That last sentence may be up for debate, however. Dylan was an incredibly bright singer. Intelligent and engaged he represented the flashing bulb of the sixties’ creative revolution. To compound the point of his intelligence, the singer claimed to have written the anthemic ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in under 10 minutes. It might sound ludicrous but judging by previous claims it could well be true.
When Leonard Cohen was in Paris at the same time as Dylan was performing a headline show, the two had arranged to meet backstage where a typically quizzical Dylan was particularly interested in Cohen’s hit song ‘Hallelujah’. “How long did it take to write it?” Dylan asked. “Two years,” Cohen lied knowing full well that the process of forming that particular song actually stretched into five years.
In response, Cohen told Dylan: “I really like ‘I and I,” in reference to the song that appeared on Dylan’s album Infidels. “How long did it take you to write that?” Cohen then asked.
“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan replied.
It’s very likely that the song could’ve been written so quickly but the real change for Dylan was the subject matter as he began turning his attention inward on later songs. It would inspire a generation of activists, music lovers and poets alike, such was its all-encompassing power.
So, whether it was intentionally written as a protest song or not, whether Dylan wrote it in under 10 minutes as he claimed or it took him weeks, whether it changed the faced of music or just added to it, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the song, whenever you hear—even nearly 60 years on—it truly makes you take a moment and think.