Three verses made bob Dylan a superstar.
Written in 1962, Blowin’ in the Wind initially had only two verses. The third (“How many years can a mountain exist…”) was inserted into the middle of the other two. It’s the key verse, the one that ties it to the civil rights movement and the one that helped make Dylan the ‘voice of a generation’. Only a semi-protest song (the questioning rhetorical strategy broadens the appeal by expanding its focus to be too all-inclusive to be properly termed ‘protest’), it is a genuine anthem of the decade that produced it, and it was transformative.
Some sources indicate that Pete Seeger was the first to perform it live, learning the words and lyrics from Dylan backstage in a New York club before showcasing it for the crowd. It was first recorded by The Chad Mitchell Trio but their record company balked at releasing it. When it was snapped up by Peter, Paul and Mary it became a smash hit, selling three hundred thousand copies in its first week of release. Voice of a generation, indeed.
According to my iTunes playlist, I have fifty-one different versions of this song on my phone (many are live versions by Dylan, who has performed it live in concert – according to his website – an astounding 1,190 times). I have to say, it’s not a favorite of mine. It’s groundbreaking, yes, even era-defining, but also a little too dull for me. It’s one of his least variable songs as it only works well in a limited set of tempos and arrangements. I’ve always liked Joan Baez’s versions – it suits her well.
According to Robert Shelton, Blowin’ was a key part of Albert Grossman’s strategy to build the Dylan brand. Grossman also managed Peter, Paul and Mary and his goal for 1963 was big hit, strong word of mouth for Dylan as a songwriter from established folk performers like Seeger and Baez, and a big push at the Newport Folk Festival, where Baez had made her name in 1959. Blowin’ helped both Grossman and Dylan achieve their goals.
The song owes a musical debt to “No More Auction Block For Me”, and it was the subject of a false plagiarism claim that dogged Dylan for a few years, although his subsequent songwriting demonstrated that he had no need to rip off anyone.
As I say, not one of my favourites, but I do like this live version from 1963 – one of Dylan’s earliest television appearances.