—“Mother Simpson,” 1995
Like so many great lines of literature before it (“To be or not to be?” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” etc.), the refrain of Bob Dylan’s most famous song has become a cliché. The line—“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”—has become so commonplace and simple after nearly 50 years in the public consciousness that it is easy to laugh at the plainness of the sentiment.
Even at the time of its release, though, people were laughing at “Blowin’ in the Wind.” According to Bob Spitz, Dave Von Ronk, one of Dylan’s early mentors, had a pretty dismissive reaction to the song: “Jesus, Bobby—what an incredibly dumb song! I mean, what the hell is ‘blowing in the wind’?…I figured Bobby could grind out a tune like that on the worst day he ever had in his life.” Even Dylan himself would occasionally sound modest about the song, saying in 1966, “I was never satisfied with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I wrote that in ten minutes. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ was a lucky classic song…but it was one-dimensional.”
Whether he was satisfied with it or not, though, “Blowin’ in the Wind’ essentially made Dylan’s career. Dylan would go on to do many great things and write many brilliant songs, but if he had retired from songwriting immediately after finishing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” we’d probably still remember him. He wouldn’t have even had to record it—when Peter, Paul, and Mary covered it in 1963, the song became a huge hit, selling over a million copies and reaching #2 on the Billboard charts. Last year, when I started the Bob Dylan series with “The Times They Are A-Changin,” I said that “Blowin’ in the Wind” would be one of the first three songs mentioned in any obituary of Dylan if and when he ultimately dies. Well, in the vast majority of them, it will probably come first. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is the song that made Dylan famous, that turned him into an icon, and it’s probably the song most people still associate him with.
And that is nothing to be sad about. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is simple, and thus easily mocked, but it’s also a stunningly moving song, and one of the best songs Dylan would ever write. There is a reason that this song would latch onto the public’s consciousness more than any other song Dylan would write. There is something universal, yet profoundly specific, that comes through in this song, something that would turn this song into an anthem for the civil rights movement, that would turn Dylan into the “voice of a generation,” that would move Sam Cooke so much that he would end up writing “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The great irony of this song is that it would go such a long way to cement Dylan’s reputation as a “protest singer,” and yet there is nothing in the song that he is explicitly protesting. Unlike fact-based songs such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which describe particular unjust crimes, or even the thinly veiled ambiguity of “The Times They Are A-Changin,” which calls out senators and congressmen, there is no explicit sentiment of defiance embedded in the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
What does pervade the song, instead, is a sense of existentialist curiosity. The lyrics of the song contain nine questions with no answers. Some of the questions (“How many years can some people exist / before they’re allowed to be free?”) would have held obvious political connotations given the climate in which the song was released. Some of them, though, carry no obvious political baggage: What exactly does a white dove sleeping in the sand have to do with Jim Crow? Taken as a whole, this assortment of questions doesn’t evoke a particular political stance, but a more permanent sense of the uncertainty in the world.
This is why the questions are both timeless and resonant. A listener like Cooke or Mavis Staples could hear the song in 1963 and immediately recognize in it the plight of American blacks, even though nothing about it applies uniquely to blacks. Dylan is singing about universal questions about identity, morality, and freedom, and yet the images he sings about are so concrete (there is a particular sense of mundane brilliance in Dylan asking how many ears someone needs to have to hear people crying, as if the only way to be sensitive to human suffering is to have some deformed face with 11 ears) that the questions feel urgent and specific.
Dylan, of course, reminds the listener over and over that the answers are blowing in the wind, but this is an archetypal case of Dylan speaking with multiple meanings. As Lisa Simpson reminds us, these questions are rhetorical, and stating that the answers are blowing in the wind implies that they are ubiquitous and easy to pluck out. But the answers to these questions, of course, are as elusive as the wind—each question has both an obvious normative answer (people shouldn’t have to exist for any number of years to be free), and a more complicated descriptive answer (Who is in the position to “allow” them to be free? How do we go about granting that freedom? What does it even mean to be free?).
Dylan would come to hate the “protest singer” label, largely because it implied that he was someone with all the answers. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” though, is perfect illustration of how sometimes the best thing an artist can do is ask the right questions.