There are certain words and phrases that are simply inextricable. Like maple syrup and New England. Lois and Clark. Bob Dylan and Blowin’ in the Wind.
If there’s one song you had to choose to associate with the quintessential singer/songwriter, the “greatest songwriter of the 20th (and 21st?) century,” the bard of our time, it would probably be Blowin’ in the Wind. Of course, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and All Along The Watchtower are the two songs most people know, due to famous covers, but Blowin’ is significant on a whole other level.
Bob Dylan never felt comfortable being called “the voice of a generation” (who could bear that burden?), but whether or not he liked it, Blowin’ is most likely to thank/blame for that. In three short verses, consisting of three rhetorical questions each, Dylan reflected major concerns which occupied many a worried mind of the early 60’s concerning segregation, political power, and war, to name a few. The refrain is simple yet a conundrum: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind,” sung in the all-knowing, world-weary voice of a 22 year old Dylan who was “so much older then” (he’s younger than that now, to quote My Back Pages)..
Great songs sound like they somehow always existed, written in the stars as it were. Or, as Michaelangelo put it, the sculpture is already in the stone; it’s the artists’ job to get it out. Of course, this is what artistry is all about: to “know my song well before I start singing,” so when it hits the listener’s ears and eyes, it’s as if a truth is being conveyed. In fact, Gretel Pelto, a family friend of my parents who knew Dylan when he was still Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota, before he moved to the Big Apple to meet his idol Woody Guthrie (who famously wrote This Land is Your Land), described an early Dylan concert (at Carnegie Hall?) as “a moment of truth.”
Dylan certainly knew the song well before he recorded it on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). His first album, self-titled as Bob Dylan (1962), didn’t do well, but Columbia Record’s John Hammond gave him a second chance. Hammond, who discovered Dylan while he was singing at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village, believed in him the way he believed in countless greats before Dylan was signed to that label (where he remains signed to this day): Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Benny Goodman, to name just a few. In contrast to the first album which consisted mostly of covers (besides Song to Woody), Freewheelin’ featured all originals and included songs like Masters of War, Girl From the North Country, and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, which Patti Smith sang at the Nobel Ceremony in lieu of Dylan’s presence at the ceremony (he did, however write an entertaining acceptance speech which was read during the ceremony and gave an interesting lecture in literature on YouTube).
Although Dylan purportedly wrote Blowin’ quickly – in around 10 minutes (at least two of the verses) – the song took shape during a stint Dylan had in a play in London where his role consisted of sitting on the steps of the stage and singing Blowin’ in the Wind with his guitar. By the time he got a chance to record it for the record, he knew it well, and so did Peter, Paul & Mary.
That group had a major hit with it, and since then, countless musicians have done the same. It even inspired Sam Cooke to write A Change Is Gonna Come (which Dylan sang at the Apollo Theater in 2004). Stevie Wonder had a big hit with it and sings it regularly, often as an encore, and sometimes takes off his sunglasses when he does so, which is very powerful.
When I’ve used this song in the classroom, I like to use a personal example from my family to help give context to the first line: “How many roads must a man walk down/before you can call him a man?” When my parents (both from NYC) got married, they moved to Oklahoma where dad worked for the Indian Healthcare Service and mom went to the University of Tulsa (where the Bob Dylan Center recently opened, appropriately next to the Woody Guthrie Center – Woody was famously an Okie). Mom’s best friend and roommate was Gayle, a black woman. They couldn’t eat at the same restaurant or go to the movies together due to Jim Crow. But they became activists, and joined Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), eventually joining a sit-in where they tried to get served at the cafeteria of a department store, like Woolworth’s. The leader of the sit-in was a black man who tried to get served at the counter. The waiter behind the counter referred to the sign which read “we reserve the right to refuse service” and said he was sorry he couldn’t serve him. The one trying to get served explained he was a veteran. A taxpayer.
THAT is what “How many roads must a man walk down” means. Of course, it could be much worse than that. No rubber bullets or hoses were used on that day. No one was lynched. But all of them – including mom – were carried to the police van, and arrested. Something I’m proud of. Gayle passed away a couple years ago, but they remained good friends until the end.
Today, that line could easily be applied to the plight of Palestinians who endure humiliating checkpoints just to get to work in Israel, or anywhere in the world where there are 1st and 2nd class citizens.
And that’s just the first line of the song!
How many seas must the white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they’re forever banned?
Israel/Palestine. Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, Chile, Pearl Harbor,
Now a little about this recording.
I’m very proud of it.. But to be honest, it took a long time to share; I have a whole album’s-worth of material that was intended for Dylan’s 75th birthday, before the Nobel Prize was announced. Due to various circumstances, there have been delays, but there’s one other single out there, a dancey/Hendrix homage to All Along the Watchtower. And the album will hopefully be done later this year. Something to look forward to!
You will notice my rendition has a rich Indian flavor. This is thanks to two master musicians: Suranjana Ghosh on tabla, and Stian Grimstad on sitar. I actually had the honor to study tabla with Suranjana for one year when I came to Sweden, and she is truly one of a kind. Aside from being a master, she is also one of few female tabla masters, collaborating with musicians across all kinds of genres. Stian, from Norway, is a fantastic sitarist (and brass player), and the solo he does here is so touching I well up almost each time I hear it. It was so exciting to record with him. The first couple times he tried he played in a more Western style, until I said: just play a raga. 😀
On drums is the legendary James Bradley Jr (read more about him on a recent post on my FaceBook page). On 12-string guitar is Rebel Robert, who famously busked in the Slussen metro station for many years in Stockholm. The heavy Fredrik Högkvist on bass. Virtuoso Edward Ziberg on electric guitar. Together these musicians make up a group, Gravity of Love.
In the studio on recording day was Mikael “Berkan” Bergström who mastered the track, and also present throughout all the sessions was Jonathan Segel, of Camper Van Beethoven, who expertly mixed the song.
I’m so grateful for all the musicians, and to Krishna Das for the inspiration to do the song this way. I actually wrote to see if he wanted to record this but he never wrote back so I said oh well, I guess I’ll do it.
Happy birthday, Mr. Dylan! May you stay Forever Young. : )