I have always been puzzled by the song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, troubled by it even. I love Bob Dylan and, indeed, I love the song, but it isn’t my favourite, because, behind the lovely melody and poetry, the obfuscation leaves a nagging sense of searching. And, unlike other lyrically obscure songs, I struggle to corroborate my own personal evocations because for all the song is cloaked, there does seem to be something exacting in the undertow.
Seeing as though the song was recorded on this day in 1962, it seemed like the perfect time to get to the bottom of it.
The first sage I turned to on my journey into the murky lyrical minefield was Bob Dylan himself, or rather we contacted his management, but because he’s 80 and there isn’t much cause for him to promote a 59-year-old song that’s widely adored by the entire globe, we got the short shrift ‘Maybe another time’.
The next best thing was dredging up what he’s said about it in the past. “There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind.” It’ not what you’d call a promising first line. But there’s more, he goes on to say, “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.”
Adding, “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.”
Am I, like the hip people, in my urgent search for meaning, figuratively calling, ‘Well, Bob let me know when the answer stops blowing, and I’ll meet it there?’ And if it’s an answer, for that matter, what even is the question? For help with these quandaries, I emailed an old high school philosophy teacher. He had retired and the email was now defunct. The search went on…
Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the inspirations and influences that spawned it. After all, Dylan claims to have written the song in only ten minutes. He may well be a songwriter of such originality that every songsmith that followed seemed to be stirred from his strummed strings, but as any builder will tell you if a bricky builds a wall in a day it’s only because somebody has already laid the foundations in place.
On that front, it is well known that Dylan, like everyone else, had his life changed by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Or as Dylan puts it on the liner notes, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” As it happens, Jack Kerouac was in the navy during World War II and even though he never ended up serving, I’ll bet that even the imagined horrors and the brutal cascade of harrowing news from overseas made his search all the more pressing and prescient once armistice had settled and reflection was called upon.
In Kerouac’s search, he spent seven years ambling the “unbelievable huge bulge” of America “that rolls all the way to the west coast,” returned and spent three weeks writing a frenzied book about it. And he even states out the meaning himself “A lot of people have asked me why did I write that book or any book,” and after some glowing prose where God points at him from the clouds and tells him to mourn for man, he concludes rather simply, “…Anyway I wrote the book because we’re all going to die.”
Is that it? To accept the highs and lows of circumstance, keep an eye out for your fellows and peacefully acquiesce to inevitability. Kerouac’s search was seven years long, but in the booming headwind of the sixties, people wanted answers quick, perhaps too quick. There is no doubting that some of that is certainly in the mix of his least immediate song of the era, but as Dylan disavowed himself, “It ain’t in no book.”
With little left in the barrel to scrape at the bottom of this search, I figured it was time to turn to the esteemed and educated theologians. With none at hand, I bowed to YouTube and deep in the bowels of the content beast I happened to stumble upon a bishop who very eloquently and quite convincingly muses that the wind is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. Dylan is after all a very biblical writer and that’s before he spent the turn of the eighties making a trilogy of shoddy born-again Christian albums.
While Dylan singing of salvation and forgiveness in the metaphysics all around us might seem up his street, where does it sit in the secular boom of counterculture, and what about all the political references which are, in fact, the least veiled elements of the song? Once again, God may well be in the mix but the virtues Dylan was extolling in this period seemed to be more individualistic than any canon law.
Maybe that’s part of it, individualism. We all have our own questions, and we all have our own answers for that matter? Maybe we see how his fellow artists interpreted it. For what it’s worth when Sam Cooke heard the song, it inspired him to write a version of his own. “I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan,” his brother L.C. Cooke said. “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’.”
Indeed, the line “How many roads…” definitely seems to pertain to Civil Rights notions. And what’s more, Cooke’s motif of the flowing river and time as a healer offering a message of hope and inevitable change, is one that also tessellates nicely with Dylan’s rather more clandestine original. Once again though, this is just an interpretation and although more watertight than most, I wouldn’t face the tides of certainty wearing Cooke’s analysis alone.
Now as the deadline for this piece approaches like a steam train with the sort of rapid gusting tailwind that Dylan doesn’t seem to be singing about, I feel the burning need to simultaneously conclude this piece and my journey and as such my understanding of the song, because a) I’m already aware I’m taking stylistic liberties and b) It’s only the 59th anniversary, if an answer seemed palpably imminent then it could wait a year for the biggie.
Feeling stricken, I clutch at the following: Bob Dylan was a 21-year-old kid who wrote a little song in ten minutes, and he doesn’t owe us any answers. Ultimately, if it’s in the wind will it ever remain elusive? Is that it? And as I suspect, the wind in question is the sort of pleasant breeze that is to be enjoyed along the way, while the rest of the lyrics paint the occasional morally obvious detail about equality and peace that no poet has much cause for because it’s hard to dress up ‘be nice’ in anything sartorial, leaving us with the classic Kurt Vonnegut quote: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
I wouldn’t know, because frankly, I still don’t have the foggiest, but hopefully, by next year, the wind will have lifted some of the mist for the 60th anniversary. For now, I’ll just enjoy the beautiful song.