Thursday, June 3, 2010

Let Us Now Praise Famous Songs: Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind"

"Blowin' In The Wind" may well not be Bob Dylan's best song, but it is incontrovertibly his best known song, the one that has already attained the Stephen Foster-type status of a composed song by a known author that has moved into the oral folk tradition. As with Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," people all over the world sing "In The Wind" in English and/or in their own languages, often without knowing who wrote it - because like "This Land," its ideas, hopes, and longings are expressed in an idiom that is all but universal. Like Guthrie's composition as well, "Blowin' In The Wind" has most all of the virtues of a real, traditional folk song - a simple melody line, repetitive structure, easy chorus, and a simple trope (the rhetorical question here) employed in every verse.

But more than that, and again like "This Land," "Wind" resonates with a simply but superbly evocative poeticism in the verses. Where Guthrie writes of "the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts" - and has anyone else ever expressed that vision better? - Dylan demands,"How many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry?" - and again, the combination of anger at injustice and hope for remediation never finds better expression than in that and many other lines in Dylan's straightforward but passionate lyric.

"Blowin' In The Wind" has a melody derived from a spiritual, as the first video below describes, and lyrically it represents a quantum leap beyond Dylan's earlier topical songs, not least because of the aforementioned universality. Born as it was of the civil rights era, it has easily transmuted itself to every decade since - and could have done so as well earlier, at least as far back as there were cannon balls that could be banned. For this reason alone, it has my vote for the one song by Bobby D. that someone will definitely be singing - and marching to - in the next century.

National Public Radio did a piece a couple of years ago on the song's composition, and NPR does a better job that I could of detailing its origins:

And without further ado - a very young Bob on TV doin' it the way it was written:

Now NPR got one part of the story wrong, or at least they skipped a significant element. They do point out that Dylan was not a household name at the time of this song - his albums sold in the thousands of copies only. But Milt Okun, former solo folk singer, collaborator with Belafonte, and musical director for several folk groups, brought the song first to - his proteges the Chad Mitchell Trio. That Trio (already famous for its satirical political songs) was eager to record the number, release it as a single, and title what would be their third album after it. An old school producer at the group's Kapp Records label vetoed the ideas, however, maintaining that "no song with death in the lyrics was ever a hit," and the album was released as The Chad Mitchell Trio In Action.

Okun, however, was also the musical director and arranger for another young and eager folk trio called Peter, Paul, and Mary, and he brought the song to them. PP&M did everything that the CMT had wanted to do with the song. They titled an album In The Wind, released the song as a single (it sold a million copies and hit #2 on the Billboard charts) and performed the number before ML King's "I have a dream " speech during the August, 1963 civil rights March On Washington. The success of the song made both Dylan and PP&M household names in the U.S.

So next - the stirring version by the CMT that was almost the first time most Americans would hear the song:

And a fine and feeling version it is to this day. But the vagaries of fate being what they are, here is the first that most Americans ever heard of Bob Dylan - Peter, Paul and Mary performing on the BBC what had been one of the great recordings of the era:

If you weren't around in '63 and didn't hear this on the radio for the first time - you have no idea of the electric thrill that went through millions who listened. And children - this was #2 on Top 40 charts. It signaled a new era in songwriting and popular music.

Almost immediately, other artists in droves began to cover the song, one of the earliest and best being the sublime Judy Collins, here live at the Newport Folk Festival:

Interesting variation on the melody, chord structure, and rhythm.

The Kingston Trio included a rather perfunctory cover of the song on their mid-1963 Sunny Side album, but that studio version paled in comparison to those by the artists above. In 2009, however, Folk Era Records released a CD of a 1963 concert in Kentucky by the group with a version of the song that rivals the CMT and PP&M for its power:

Of the thousands of other covers, hundreds of which are on the web, here are some of the best:

Dolly Parton:

Dylan's old friends Liam Clancy and Odetta, who died within months of each other:

Bruce Springsteen, 1985:

Glen Campbell and Stevie Wonder:

Joan Baez & Bobby D:

Punk Version From Cover Artists Me First and the Gimme Gimmes:

Poet W.H. Auden once wrote that poetry makes nothing happen; he was being slightly ironic, of course, because without poetry and the visions that it creates, nothing ever happens. Cannon balls may still fly and too many people still die - but if misery ever lessens or ceases, it will be because people will question why it has to happen. And they'll be singing "Blowin' In The Wind" when they do.


Anonymous said...

Well done!............................................................

Linkmeister said...

Have you ever heard The Hollies' version?


Horns and strings, oh my. It's from an album the group did that was all Dylan covers. Their version of "I Shall Be Released" is probably the best song on the album, unless it's "This Wheel's on Fire."

Jim Moran said...

Hey Link - Thanks for the heads up - definitely, ah, unusual. But try this one on for size - from a reply on one of the message boards where I post these articles:

(the usual HTML link tag doesn't seem to work here - how'd you do it?)

Linkmeister said...

I used the a href="" html standard. Another alternative is to install the Linkification add-on in Firefox; it auto-converts anything with that looks like a URL into a clickable link.

Will check that out and come back.

Linkmeister said...

Oh, fer . . .Dance steps? DANCE STEPS?

Oy vey. Thanks for the pointer, I guess. ;)