Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #14: Blowin' In The Wind


I wish I could exactly remember what it was my father told me once, but here's the general upshot: in a given lifetime, the absolute limit of information about the world we live in that a typical human can absorb is about 20%. That means that roughly 1/5 of everything one could learn about - basketball, skydiving, playing the harmonica, trigonometry, flying a jet - is the most we could ever learn. If you think about that, it both sounds like a lot, and not very much at all. On the one hand, given the vast amount of topics anybody could ever dream to know anything about, let alone specialize in, and given that we only use 10% of our powerful brains to begin with, it's impressive to imagine you could soak in that much. On the other, it is a sobering reminder of just how large, how imposing, and how staggering the universe we live in truly is. A lifetime of reading, experience, of just plain living, and the most we could ever learn is that much? My goodness.

Of course, it's near impossible to imagine that anybody could learn that much to begin with, and it's not hard to understand why: our frame of reference, in our lifetime, is almost pathetically small. Even the most jetsetting individual, in his lifetime, will only experience a fraction of the locations you could live in on this planet, from the biggest metropolis to a tent in the middle of the vastest jungle. On top of that, you will only experience that one area in the present tense, i.e. the moment that you're in right at that second. A person living in London today will never know what it was like to live there in 1966, let alone 1566. Also, your own personal path of life determines both what you'll experience and what you won't; a bachelor at age 55 and a father of 4 at the same age will have very divergent experiences and ways of looking at the world. Education, ever-shifting political and social landscapes, economic considerations; when you add everything up, you will have one very specific way of looking at the world. I'm never going to know what it's like to be a 35-year old Danish woman with two kids working in Beijing as a reporter on the 2008 Olympics. That's what our human experience is all about, and it's a painful notion indeed.

So, then, I will never be able to understand what it was like to live in a world before "Blowin' in the Wind", one of the most famous songs ever written, did not exist. No amount of books written, interviews conducted, or even films watched will convey to me that distant time, that point in American history when Bob Dylan was just a cat from Minnesota who made up stories and sang traditionals, before The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan changed everything. I'll never know what it felt like to not have "the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind" as a reference point, to not have a song Douglas Adams used to create The Ultimate Question, to not have the iconic album cover Cameron Crowe would attempt to glom off of in cringe-worthy fashion for one of his lesser movies, and to not have a song so universal and brilliant that the late great Sam Cooke would draw inspiration from it to write a song that might be even better. That knowledge, that my meager frame of reference cannot encompass a world without this fantastic album and this world-renowned song, is both something that humbles me and something I am truly thankful for.


The quantum leap between the fresh-faced youngster of Bob Dylan and the, well, fresh-faced youngster of Freewheelin' is something rarely seen in music, and something only the best bands are capable of duplicating. The best example of this is the leap The Beatles made between With The Beatles, a fine pop-rock album, and A Hard Day's Night, one of the greatest pop-rock albums ever recorded. With The Beatles, even for a group as wildly successful as The Beatles were, was a backwards thinking album; I love their versions of "Money" and "Please Mr. Postman", but it seems strange to think that two covers (let alone six) would be taking up valuable real estate on the second album of a group so big in England that With The Beatles would sell 500,000 advance copies and sit atop the charts for 21 weeks. A Hard Day's Night, on the other hand, dispenses with covers entirely, and is a complete Lennon-McCartney collaboration. This was shocking as hell for the time - nobody put out an album of just their own songs - but seems entirely natural in retrospect, as surely both the group and their handlers realized that the only way success would become permanent would be to make that step, to shake off those old influences, and to firmly establish the band as their own songwriting unit. It worked, thankfully.

Dylan's album was expected to work the same way - after the flop of Bob Dylan, Tom Hammond wanted very badly to make the 2nd album a success, whatever it took. At first, it looked like it would be more of the same; the original sessions featured a number of traditionals and blues songs, as well as some originals (which, it needs to be said, were not up to the quality of the eventual released originals). Thankfully, there was no rush to put that 2nd album out, allowing Bob to work on some newer, better songs (as well as to work through a brief rockabilly phase that probably would've screwed everything up, no matter what you think of "Mixed-Up Confusion") and create the album that we have today. Bob had a full year to make things work, and he delivered the goods in spades.

Still, how does that explain how we got from "The Death of Emmitt Till" to "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"? Is there even a satisfactory answer to this question, or a way of ever knowing for sure? Was he truly a product of his times, of a decade that moved so fast that the America of December 31st, 1969 was completely unrecognizable from the America of January 1st, 1960? Was it the fact that he'd so completely synthesized traditional/folk/blues music (and figured out the best melodies to steal, wink wink) that he had morphed into an incredible conduit for folk music's finest qualities? Hell, was it just the pain of Suze Rotolo choosing Italy over him? There's a million culprits, and no smoking gun.

You listen to Freewheelin' and hear the work of a man who's realized the potential of his genre, who knows how to make his guitar walk and talk, who can write songs of emotional agony and intellectual fire, who understands that he's a great songwriter singing his own amazing songs and has all the confidence of somebody who's reached that understanding. It's incredible to hear, and I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't make me insanely jealous. To be that young and suddenly find yourself at the forefront of a major musical movement, on the basis of an album light years ahead of its peers, is something beyond my understanding; probably Bob's, as well. Sometimes you work hard and create something great, and sometimes you work hard and create something so amazing you have no choice but to ride the wave it creates. Freewheelin' created that wave for Bob, and he rode it as far as he could - or, at least, as far as he wanted to.


I'd mentioned how Sam Cooke had been inspired by "Blowin' In The Wind" to write "A Change Is Gonna Come", and how Cooke's anthem might even be better than the song that inspired its creation. I might not be alone in this notion; Cooke's song is almost crushingly beautiful, buoyed by an epic string and horn arrangement that nearly reaches Disney-bombastic levels, sung so incredibly well that any possible cover would simply shrivel up and blow away in its presence. And, if you'll forgive me pointing this out, "A Change Is Gonna Come" has the massive, society-defining weight of the civil rights movement behind it ("Blowin' In The Wind" does, too, but that's more tangential - it's almost impossible to think MLK et. al wasn't foremost on Cooke's mind when he wrote his song), which adds even more drama and gravity to an already dramatic tune.

What interests me, though, is the fact that as much as Cooke was influenced by "Blowin' In The Wind", "A Change Is Gonna Come" is more or less the ying to Dylan's song's yang. While both songs tackle weighty issues in a universal manner, they go about different ways of doing it. Dylan keeps his questions as non-specific as possible; Cooke draws from his own experiences (or, at least, experiences he'd be familiar with) to hook the listener in. Dylan uses only his trusty acoustic guitar and his voice, while Cooke has that powerful orchestration behind him. Dylan sings his song with the absolute minimum of emotion, while Cooke pushes his incredible voice as far as it will go. Finally, as previously mentioned, Dylan's song is more generically about the big questions we as humans face, while Cooke's reflects our own struggles and experiences through the prism of civil rights and hundreds of years of black struggles and experiences.

Of course, both songs share this in common - they're absolutely classic songs, ones that force us to think as well as to enjoy listening to them. I guess the comparison helps strengthen that old adage that "there's more than one way to skin a cat" - or, in this case, "there's more than one way to write a classic protest song". Dylan would cover Sam Cooke's song many, many years after "Blowin' In The Wind" came out, and (as much as I hate to say it) his version still cowered in the shadow of the original. But that Dylan would bother to perform the song at all, to acknowledge that one great song had given birth to another, speaks volumes.


What is most interesting about the Freewheelin' version of "Blowin' In The Wind" is just how innocuous it might seem, after 40-odd years of having the song make up part of our national consciousness. Dylan, for whatever reason, had ditched the vocal affectations of his debut, and sings in the Bob voice we all know and love, biting off his syllables and coming ever so close to talking his way through the song. His guitar is pitched very high, so that the notes chime out in counterpoint to Dylan's low half-mumble. And, as usual, there's a sense of casualness in the recording - why else would the album take feature Bob having a brainfart in the 3rd verse and needing a half second to remember the words? You add all those up, and it doesn't really sound like the formula for one of the defining songs of the folk movement, does it?

You can see where I'm going with this, I'm sure - it's the lyrics that makes the song what it is. You could play the song in a different key, with only 3 chords, on piano, with a ukelele, a-capella, or like this, and as long as you get all the words right, the song is going to retain power and the ability to spark the imagination. What's great about the lyrics is that Dylan doesn't feel the need to answer his own profound questions, merely giving us that even more thought-provoking answer; trying to answer the questions would probably ruin the effect anyway (and he was only 22 at the time - how much could he know about ANYTHING?). By putting the onus of thought on the listener, he looks all the smarter - maybe he really knows the truth, but just isn't telling us. That's far more brilliant than a popular song is supposed to be, isn't it?

PS: Mr. Stan Denski, a writer with far more credentials than I could ever dream of having, was nice enough to compliment my work and sent me a link to his own blog where he dedicates an entire post to Freewheelin'. It's a very thoughtful, well-written post, and I'm sure he won't mind me putting the link here for wider consumption. Go read it here: http://thesethingstoo.blogspot.com/search/label/Freewheelin'

PPS: As an audio bonus, I was originally going to put up a version of "Blowin' In The Wind" from 1974 (a version I've seen described as "Overblown' in the Wind" - clever!). However, since 1974 is still a ways off and that tour is so divisive with Dylan fans to begin with, I instead offer Dylan's performance of "A Change Is Gonna Come", from the Apollo Theater's 70th Anniversary concert. Enjoy!


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Anonymous said...

The intro to that performance from the Sam Cooke TV special also talks about the connection between the songs and includes a clip of Cooke singing Blowin' In The Wind:


I guess they never put out the DVD of that show. Too bad; Dylan's ACIGC would fit in nicely alongside his other officially-released covers from the same timeframe.

You used the word "universal" to describe the two anthems (I guess it stands to reason, lest they not be, um, anthemic) -- their timelessness is equally important. Even if both songs are clearly born out of the time period of Civil Rights Movin', they're not just time-sensitive polemics with expiration dates. Well, other than the fact that they post-date the inventions of cannons and movie theaters, respectively.

Here's my favorite reinterpretation of Blowin' In The Wind, and mayhaps my favorite NET performance of them all: March 16 2000, Santa Cruz, issued as a CD single bonus track and played over the credits of Masked and Anonymous:


I also like the one from the Concert for Bangla Desh. ("Are you gonna play I Want To Hold Your Hand"?)


Anonymous said...

And by Sam Cooke TV special I mean Apollo Theater TV special, it of the missed opportunity for collaboration between Dylan and Tracy Morgan. TELL ME you can't hear Dylan covering Werewolf Bar Mitzvah and singing "spooky, scary" with the Ain't Talkin' campfire ghost stories vocal.

Anonymous said...

This is very long.

Anonymous said...

But substantive.

Anonymous said...

i believe it was "the times they are a-changin'" that influenced sam cooke to write "a change is gonna come" not "blowin' in the wind"

Anonymous said...

or at least that's the story i was told

Anonymous said...

When you get to the album "Oh, Mercy" (I know that seems like a long ways away about now), keep "Blowing In The Wind" in mind when you consider the song "What Good Am I." I always thought that these two songs were deeply related, one from the perspective of youthful bravado and the other from that of middle-aged introspection. I love how he moves from anthem to confession while maintaining basically the same theme and structure.

Keep up the good work on the blog. It is a pleasure to read.

Anonymous said...

"A Hard Day's Night, on the other hand, dispenses with covers entirely, and is a complete Lennon-McCartney collaboration."

In fact, it was almost entirely written by Lennon.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, possibly the greatest song of all time. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/78/Blowin-In-The-Wind and listen to all the great versions of this classic. Every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.