In 1991, at a live performance at Hershey, Pa, Neil Young covered Bob Dylan’s generation-defining political anthem ‘Blowin In The Wind’. Dylan’s songs have been performed by a countless array of musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Avril Lavigne. But, for Young, Dylan was more than just a brilliant songwriter, he was a kindred spirit a source of inspiration.
Both Young and Dylan are, today, regarded as two of the most celebrated songwriters of all time. In the eyes of music fans, they are almost musical siblings and like all siblings, one always has to take the lead.
The catalyst for Dylan’s career was undoubtedly his move to new york. Previously he’d been, as many of his contemporaries noted, little more than a very good Woody Guthrie impersonator. But after playing in the folk clubs around Greenwich Village, Dylan found his voice. Today, that voice is woven into the very fabric of American pop music and came to represent the political dissent of the civil rights movement.
Young, however, cut his teeth whilst performing in the backing band of artists such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Springfield. It wasn’t until 1968 that young released his first solo record. Since then, young’s delicate vocal style, deeply personal lyrics, and impressive songwriting skills have all cemented him, along with Dylan, as one of the most important songwriters of the late 20th century.
The relationship between Bob Dylan and Neil young is often described in terms of the mentor-student dynamic. Dylan, born in 1945 is four years older than Young and rose to prominence in his own right well before he did. For many, their relationship seems like fate. It’s true that it almost feels as though the world wanted them to meet, growing up, as they did, on opposite sides of the US-Canda Border. However, it wouldn’t be until 1974, when Dylan Attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert in Minneapolis, that the two musical cousins would meet
“In the middle of the acoustic set, Young introduces ‘For the Turnstiles’ by saying: ‘Here’s a song I wrote a long time ago. There’s a couple of really good songwriters here tonight; I hope they don’t listen too closely.”
Soon after this first interaction, Dylan and Young would share the stage at The Band’s legendary concert The Last Waltz.
Throughout both their careers, Dylan and Young have expressed a profound interest in each other’s music. In 2002, Dylan performed Young’s classic track ‘Old Man’ on a number of his tour dates and Young has performed a variety of Dylan’s tracks throughout this career, adding to the belief that Niel young is Bob Dylan’s greatest disciple. The impact Dylan had on Young can be seen in his graveled voice, his harmonica playing, and his plucked, steel-strung guitar playing. But, as one commentator noted, it can also be found in: ‘The shared cunning. Young has mastered Dylan’s greatest trick, the art of self-mythology”.
But Dylan wasn’t always flattered by Young’s admiration. Dylan famously hated Young’s 1972 hit ‘Heart of Gold’, saying that: “The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was “Heart of Gold.” I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to “Heart of Gold.” I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, “Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.
Dylan went on to express how he: “needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am. But it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it and, you know, I never got over it.”
Regardless of that episode, it’s clear that Dylan and Young have always shared an appreciation and respect for each other’s music. And Young’s cover of ‘Blowin In The Wind’ revealed that, for Young, it has been a relationship that has nourished him his whole life.
The song was written in 1962 and released as a single on his Free-Wheelin’ Bob Dylan Album the following year. A 2 verse version of the song was both written and performed for the first time at Gerde’s folk city. The recording was then circulated by die-hard Dylan fans before Dylan wrote a third middle verse for the song. Many regards ‘Blowin In The Wind’ as a song that was written in response to the civil rights movement, but really it was simply adopted by it. It’s far more likely that the lyrics are inspired by a section in Woody Guthrie’s autobiography in which Guthrie compares his political leanings to newspapers blowing in the wind on New York streets. Nevertheless, after its release, the song became the anthem of the civil rights movement and, today is emblematic of that period of furious social change.
Young clearly understood the song’s ability to comment on any number of political issues. In this cover, Young harnessed the song to respond to the conflict in the Persian Gulf, introducing it with a storm of air raid sirens and falling bombs. Then, embodying Jimi Hendrix during his performance of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, young plays the song’s overture with a powerfully distorted guitar line before letting it fall away to reveal his frail, world-weary vocals. In this recording, we hear no mimicry, only a disciple honoring the genius of the man who was a mentor.