By Tony Attwood
Coming back to Blowing in the Wind after 45 years is a strange experience. There was a time when I, and all those like me, not only listened to it every day but also played it every day. Some of us did both at once.
It is also interesting, coming back to it after so long, to hear how close the guitar playing is to the opening track of World gone Wrong in 1993.
On the Freewheelin’ recording the voice is fresh and clear – he wants every word to be heard. And this is important for the song is so tightly constructed, and every line has power and strength.
According to Alan Lomax, the song is derivative with the music originating in the singing of ex-slaves who went to Canada after Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Dylan also acknowledged the link to ‘No More Auction Block’ – which ultimately appeared on the Bootleg Series Volumes 1 to 3. As for the lyrics there are suggestions that Dylan takes some inspiration from Exekiel 12, lines 1 and 2: “They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not.”
Musically there is no emphasis in any line – rather like Positively 4th Street, each line is giving the same weighting, whether it is “How many roads must a man walk down before your call him a man”, or “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see.”
As for the meaning – it is simplicity – the world is out there and everything is there to be seen for those who wish to look. Science and humanity linked as one eternity. A simple Taoist statement.
How different from the lines in Idiot Wind:
Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad what’s bad is good you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom.
And yet the eternal contradiction of Taoism are here once more. The answers are out there, blowing in the wind, but (adds Dylan in Idiot Wind) nothing is ever quite what it seems.
Musically the song is a straight 2/4 – two beats in each bar, giving an accent in the first line to How, Roads, Man, Down. It is predominantly on the three main chords you would expect with just the slight use of the VI chord – it makes it all sound like a classic folk song.
Dylan reported that he wrote it very quickly, and was from the off a song that he felt proud of and that he himself was very happy with. And he was also keen to point out early on that it was just a statement of how the world is, and what can be seen. It was not, he said most vigorously, a protest song.
However what it is, is an anti-political song, a song that suggests that by observing and taking note of the real world, we can understand the world. We don’t need political vision, leaders, theories or anything else.
When it comes down to it, wonderful though the song is, as a vision it is incredibly simplistic and naive. It is a beautiful simple song, but not a basis for living one’s life (unless one is living in a rural idyll with plentiful food and drink and nothing much to worry about, like illness or poisonous snakes.) As he later said, “Blowing in the wind was just a feeling I felt because I feel that way.” In short, it is what it is.
For a while Dylan seemed to want to describe that in more detail, but it wasn’t really necessary. It just is a nice song with a simple message.
(Updated May 2013 and September 2015)