So far in this series
- A song is like a painting, you can’t see it all if you’re standing too close
- All directions at once: how Dylan’s lyrics empower those who wish to be empowered
- All directions at once: The prelude to the explosion
By Tony Attwood
The point of that title was simple this: from 1959 to 1961 Bob Dylan wrote 14 songs. Their subject matter consisted of…
- Blues: 2
- Love: 1
- Humour / talking blues / satire: 7
- Travelling on: 1
- Social issues: 2
- Celebration of one place: 1
There is some variation there, and as a newcomer to the art, writing 14 songs across the three years is a very decent output indeed.
But then in 1962, Bob Dylan settled down to writing seriously. In fact having written 14 songs across three years he now wrote 36 songs of which we have copies (and probably more that have been lost) in one year. It was a huge step forward. But more than that he wrote them on a wide variety of topics, some of which he had never touched before.
And the songs included some utter masterpieces, two or three of which most people who listen to music today will probably know, and which anyone who confesses to like Dylan’s music will most certainly know. Songs written some 58 years ago (if you are reading this in the year I wrote it – 2020) and yet songs of which millions can still quote the lyrics, unprompted
Three of the first four songs of 1962 were blues, Ballad for a friend, Poor Boy Blues, and Standing on the highway, and one of those three – the very first song of the year – turned out to be a sublime masterpiece and a great curiosity. A curiosity because nothing in the earlier years of writing seems to have prepared either Dylan as the writer or those of us in the audience, for it, and yet it takes Dylan to new ground. And also a curiosity because it remains unknown save by those who know every piece Dylan has composed.
If you are not familiar with the song and that video above has vanished by the time you get here, it is available on Spotify (no subscription is required) and I would urge you to listen – indeed even if you know it and haven’t played it for a while I would urge you to listen.
Despite the fact that the song has been highlighted on this blog since our earliest days, no one seems to have picked up on it, the covers are very basic affairs by amateur musicians and have little to recommend them, and despite years of searching I still can’t find an antecedent to the song. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but it is interesting that no one else seems to have found one either.
Dylan was 21 when he recorded “Ballad”, and even after all these years of playing the song over and over I find it by itself an extraordinary achievement in both composition and performance. Taking into account the composer’s age, it’s unimaginable. When talking at the end of the piece (to explain away a mistake) he sounds like a nervous uncertain 15 year old. Musically he has reached absolute maturity, and thus perhaps it is no surprise that just a few months later he came up with a billion dollar hit.
What Dylan does in “Ballad” is throw away all the conventions of the blues, apart from the fact it deals with sadness. The song itself doesn’t actually sound sad, but that works because Dylan is not raging against the world; he is just desolate, reporting what has happened, removed from the reality. When I first wrote about this song I described him as “Numb, desolate, far too distraught to cry,” so “he just tells the story. There is no dressing up of the reality, no repeats, no chorus. It just was. It just is.” That still feels right to me.
The language is old-time blues, and this is perhaps why Dylan doesn’t revisit the song, lyrically it is not the Dylan that we got to know during the rest of this year, so it remains a sketch, a one-off, an oddity…
Sad I’m sittin’ on the railroad track, Watchin’ that old smokestack. Train is a-leavin’ but it won’t be back.
Now over the years we have become used to Dylan, the singer songwriter who can cover all subjects, but at the start of 1962 when Dylan’s talent exploded across different topics in his songs, he opened cautiously.
The first four songs of the year primarily concern the blues and the traditional blues themes of death and moving on.
Then suddenly Bob changed course and after four blues songs we had four songs of social commentary: Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues, Death of Emmett Till, The Ballad of Donald White, and Let me die in my footsteps. Bob in four songs was taking on right wing politics, bigotry and social injustice.
“Let me die” is a remarkable song about the situation in the USA at the end of the 1950s when as a response to the Cold War people were buying or building their own fallout shelters to protect them in case of nuclear war.
Again this is an incredibly assured piece of writing. Dylan himself said in Chronicles he took the melody from a Roy Acuff ballad – although the first Bootleg album says that it is Bob’s first original melody. I think the point is that it sounds like it ought to be a Roy Acuff ballad, but the fact that not many (if any) people have identified which ballad suggests that one might better say the song is in the style of Roy Acuff.
In all, there we were, eight songs written in quick succession at the start of the year, following some standard themes – but containing two stunning (if now somewhat forgotten) masterpieces in “Let me Die” and “Ballad for a friend”. But what strikes me about both these songs is their assured quality of writing and delivery. There is nothing hesitant in the composition of either of the lyrics or the music – these are well-rounded songs that make sense and have an impact at every level. And Dylan wrote them after just a couple of years of songwriting in which he explored a few themes across 14 interesting, but not outstanding songs.
These two songs (“Let me Die”, and “Ballad,”) written in the early part of 1962 show an assured writer, confident, in command of both his musical and literary worlds. And the fact that these two great songs are so different in style and language suggests very strongly that there is much more to come. And so it turned out to be.
I have the feeling that after writing “Let me Die” and “Ballad for a friend” Bob Dylan absolutely knew that he could “do it” whatever “it” might happen to be. He didn’t have to write another blues, or another song protesting about the current state of America. He could do something totally different. Or not, as the case might be.
And so he wrote “Blowing in the Wind”.
Dylan himself has said that the melody came from “No more auction block” and one can certainly hear that…
… but that is simply the start of the journey of Blowing in the wind
Dylan also said in an interview early on that, “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that.” And certainly there is no answer in “Blowing in the Wind”, other than the fact that there might be an answer out there somewhere.
In my earlier series which gave a very short summary as to the subject matter of each Dylan song, for “Blowing in the Wind” I chose “It’s not the world, it’s the way you see the world” – and now some years later, that still seems fair enough. In short, you choose the answer – it’s out there, just take your choice. I’m not going to tell you how to see the world.
Now that seems at one level an incredibly simple a vision, but it is equally incredibly complicated. We live in a world in which people tell others what to do, what to believe and how to behave. From parents to school teachers to politicians to religious leaders, from people on Facebook to, well, everyone, people seem to want to tell everyone else not just how to behave, but how to see the world, what’s right and what’s wrong. Everyone seems to want to have a say. Everyone not only has an opinion, everyone wants to have their opinion noticed.
But go further and we realise it is the decision making which decides what is to be debated, that can be more important than the outcome of the debate – and that particular approach to questioning what the question is, did not arise until much later in popular music.
And yet it is here in this song. So we must ask, if we really want to get inside the music of Bob Dylan, how did Bob come to write this utter gem early in 1962 after just a couple of years sketching out songs with varying success in a variety of forms?
We certainly can’t say he was working his way up to it. If we take the songs that lead up to Blowing in the Wind we find
“Let me die” we have mentioned, but if you are not aware of “Donald White” then you will most certainly be in the majority. It’s a song that was quickly put away by Bob and not returned to after he had given it two outings, once in September and once in October 1962. You may not want to play the whole piece, but just a few moments give us an insight.
I am not suggesting that this is not a worthy piece, but rather saying that it is a worthy attempt which does not stand any comparison with “Blowing in the Wind.”
So how could Bob write something of perhaps moderate interest to Dylanologists but not many other, as with “Donald White”, then compose the powerful protest song but still ephemeral “Let me die,” before composing a song that is still performed constantly today “Blowing in the Wind”.
Certainly the title itself is of interest. The use of “wind” to suggest change or randomness or chance goes back a long way. The word “windblown” dates from the 16th century, and turned up in the phrase “blown by the wind” which in the present tense became “blowing in the wind.” And when transferred to everyday language “blowing in the wind” comes to embody the meaning of being “out there” but hard to grasp or hard to define. But it certainly is “out there” and that is the important thing. It is there if you look hard enough.
It is not quite the reverse of the belief of our ancestors (at least my ancestors, being English). For in the dark ages those who lived where I now sit would have said “Wyrd bið ful āræd.” Fate is inexorable. But no, Dylan will have none of fate. Yes there is chance implied in “Blowing in the Wind” but also the notion that we can all go out and create our futures. It is there for us to choose, to do with as we please. We are no longer ruled by the gods. The future is out there, go make it.
I think “Blowing in the wind” is still popular not just because of the universal appeal of its core message, and because of its inherent ambiguity, but also because it does imply both this hope and this freedom to make of life what we can. Whatever “it” is, it is still out there being blown around waiting for us to get hold of it. “Blowing in” also suggests that randomness and chance is very much part of everyday life today, rather than something that has occurred in the past or something that is laid down at our birth. It gives it a sense of “now” and possibility which of course was how the song came to be a favourite of the civil rights movement. “They” might be planning for wars and telling us to build air raid shelters, but we can make another life.
Thus the song has that feeling of multiple interpretations. There is no fixed answer any more, which moves us onto dangerous ground, because if there are no fixed answers then there is no right or wrong. Which in turn is an interesting contradiction from Bob’s alternative mode of writing at the time, as with the four songs that Dylan wrote immediately before “Blowing in the Wind” which took a very different stance
- Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
- Death of Emmett Till
- The Ballad of Donald White
- Let me die in my footsteps
These songs all take a stand and a position which is on the civil rights side of American politics. But now with “Blowing” we are being told the answer is out there, which is reassuring to some degree, but not quite as reassuring as having someone telling us what that answer actually is.
So did Bob change his mind after writing those for songs? I personally very much doubt it. For here was a man who could write songs at the drop of a hat (as we have noted he wrote 36 songs this year that survived in a recorded form, and goodness knows how many more that were written an abandoned).
Listening to each of these songs in turn it seems to me that Bob deals in ideas, lyrical phrases and musical phrases. Put the three together and (obviously) you get a song. I suspect the phrase “Blowing in the Wind” came to him, a musical phrase came to him, and then suddenly he had, “The answer is blowing in the wind”. Add four chords, a melody forms above, and there we are.
This is not to denigrate Bob’s song writing or the fact that “Blowing in the Wind” is a magnificent work – it wouldn’t have lasted this long had it not been. But rather, put the phrase in front of the master songwriter in the making, and off you go. It was probably the same with Irving Berlin, the only American songwriter who can be compared to Dylan. I suspect that when the phrase “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” occurred to him, the rest probably just fell into place. What rhymes with “band”? “Hand”. “Sand.” “Land”… right let’s get writing.
Come on and hear, come on and hear, Alexander's ragtime band Come on and hear, come on and hear, it's the best band in the land
But to return to Dylan’s song, and again to travel in a slightly odd direction, although everyone associates “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Peter Paul and Mary the first cover version of the song was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio (pictured at the start of this article), but it is said that their record company would not release the song as it included the word “death” which was against company policy! How to throw away a lifetime of fame.
And so the version we remember came from Peter, Paul and Mary. It sold over a million copies, and Bob Dylan made his first serious money as a songwriter. It is said that he was (to put it mildly) rather surprised when he got the first cheque.
Now, it would be easy to stop at this point and move on to the next song Dylan wrote, but there is another issue I feel the need to raise here – and that is to consider the element of chance.
Self-evidently, no one planned this string of events. Dylan was writing and having written he moved on, and in passing he happened to write one of the classics of the 20th century.
Indeed we can tell that because the next song Bob added to his repertoire was not another song of his own, but rather “Corina Corina” which the record company and his official web site later insisted on noting as WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN (ARR). If you have been around this site for a while you’ll be yawning here knowing that I am about to start shouting “What does that mean?????” He either wrote it or he arranged the work of another composer. Not both.
It is in fact a simple 12 bar country blues first recorded by Bo Carter in 1928 and copyrighted by Mr Carter four years later.
So Bob did not follow up “Blowing in the wind” with a series of similar or related songs. Instead he worked on
- Corrina Corrina (Lost love)
- Honey just allow me one more chance (Lost love)
- Rocks and Gravel (lost love, moving on)
- Quit your Lowdown Ways (do the right thing)
- Baby I’m in the mood for you (Absolute desire)
And seeing that list one might well wonder what happened to the writer of “Blowing in the wind”. Certainly there is no follow up. Three lost love songs, followed by a song telling the lady to stop misbehaving and do the right thing, followed by a little exploration of absolute desire. Because of it being recorded so many times, many of us would have known “Corrina Corrina” anyway. “Honey” might be remembered because it was on Freewheelin’ but the others…
Bob Dylan, having written an absolute masterpiece, was once again, travelling in all directions at once. And he still had 22 more songs to write before his third year of composing, and his first serious year of songwriting, came to an end. What on earth could he come up with next?
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
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