This series traces the performances of the Never Ending Tour from 1987 onward. This is episode 55 in the series, and a full index to the series can be found here.
The previous article in the series (2001 part 1) is Love and fate: acoustic 1
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
When Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, addressing the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2021 in New York, used the words ‘How many deaths will it take…’ it is unlikely that she was thinking about Bob Dylan, or ‘Blowing in the Wind’, but she was quoting him anyway.
The full text of her quote is: “How many more deaths must it take before 1.7 billion excess vaccines in the possession of the advanced countries of the world will be shared with those who have simply no access?” In other words:
‘how many deaths will it take 'til he knows That too many people have died?’
The Barbados PM went on to further reference ‘Blowing in the Wind’.
“How many more times will we then have a situation where we say the same thing over and over and over, to come to naught?” she asked. “My friends, we cannot do that anymore.”
The question, my friends, is how do we escape the dreary, atrocity-filled repetitions of history? The PM’s further comments give us an insight into the intention of that song. “If I used the speech prepared for me to deliver today, it would be a repetition, a repetition of what you have heard from others and also from me.”
How much do we have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice, or over and over again in the endless cycle of times that are always a-changing? The questions posed in ‘Blowing in the Wind’ are aimed, like the PM’s speech, to stir our consciences and to break the cycles of injustice. But this is unlikely to happen.
Of course I can’t know, but I don’t think the Barbados PM was consciously, or even unconsciously, quoting Dylan. Rather she hit upon the same rhetorical device as Dylan for the same purpose. The roots of these rhetorical questions lie in everyday speech: ‘How many times have I told you to….’ With the Barbados MP there is desperation behind her questions, with Dylan a deep-seated fatalism. We can go on asking these questions but we will never get the answers.
That fatalism, or sense of weary resignation in ‘Blowing in the Wind’, doesn’t have its roots in the rising youth and protest movement of the 1960s, is quite at variance with that movement, but rather in ‘the old time religion’ of early gospel music, music that had its origins in the slave plantations of the middle 1800s, just as the melody of that song did.
The sense of approaching apocalypse, so cogently expressed in ‘Hard Rain’, seems to be derived both from the fears of the then young, cold-war baby-boomers, facing nuclear annihilation, and from that older, doom-laden gospel tradition.
We find that tradition in ‘This World Can’t Stand Long’ by Jim Anglin, Jack Anglin, Johnny Wright, from the 1940s. The song is full of melancholic resignation to God’s will, and the approaching end of the world. Dylan often performed it from 1999 to 2002. I’m starting off this post with it, as it holds the origins of Dylan’s fatalism. (6th Nov) Nice sharp, clear recording.
This World Can’t Stand Long
The underlying sentiments of this song can be found in Dylan’s earliest songs, like ‘Song to Woody’, one of only two Dylan songs to appear on his first Album Bob Dylan (1962). The song isn’t itself a protest song, but Guthrie was a protest singer, and a particular attitude, that the world’s gone wrong, comes across loud and clear.
‘Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song About a funny old world that’s a-coming along Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn It looks like it’s a-dying and it’s hardly been born’
Guthrie sang about a world that seemed sick and hungry, tired and torn, and so would Dylan. The blues singers that Dylan mentions in the song were protest singers too, in Leadbelly’s case songs from prison, because they were black and poor. Their protest grew directly out of their circumstances. In this very early song we hear Dylan aligning himself with these outsiders and blues journeymen. This one’s from Australia, 23rd March. He keeps it simple, doesn’t try to fancy up the song at all.
Song to Woody
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), the first album of Dylan songs only, contained three songs that would stay with him for the rest of his career, and which came to epitomise protest songs as such. These are ‘Blowing in the Wind’, ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Masters of War’.
‘Blowing in the Wind’ became so famous it is almost impossible to see it in context. Is it possible to listen to it again with fresh ears? It’s a frail little ballad with anthemic power. This 2001 performance, with its dead slow tempo, brings out the gentle frailty in the verses with their impossible rhetorical questions and the anthemic power in the chorus. It’s one fearsome wind that blows away all our hopes and aspirations for a better world.
Dylan mixes upsinging and downsinging to great effect here, as he did with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, running the lines on together and so relentlessly piling up the images (See previous NET post). I’ve lost the date of this one, sorry.
Blowing in the Wind
Since ‘John Brown’ was written in October 1962, and Freewheelin’ didn’t come out until May 1963, we have to wonder why this marvellous narrative wasn’t included on the album. It makes a nice fit with ‘Masters of War’. As I’ve written before, what makes this song so great is not the anti-war theme, or even the story of the young soldier who returns maimed and disillusioned from the war, but the dramatic confrontation between mother and son on the train platform when her ‘soldier son’ comes home from the war.
The term ‘cannon ball’ used here and in ‘Blowing in the Wind’ has an oddly antique flavour. By the 20th Century we had graduated to ‘artillery shells’ or just shells. The term cannon ball takes us back to Civil War and earlier. It might have been that very universality of the term that appealed to Dylan. When listening to this, the Vietnam War comes to mind, and it is prescient in foreseeing the clash of generations that war sparked, but the Vietnam War had not started in 1962, and it could well have been the civil war Dylan had in mind. ‘Buried in the mud’, of ‘Masters of War’ also seems to evoke the Vietnam War, and I’ve seen a pretty good You Tube video that plays the song against a background of scenes from that war, but again it was written too early, and again Dylan may be thinking of the civil war.
This performance of ‘John Brown’ from the Madison Square Gardens, 11th November concert, is the best I’ve heard, and we heard a pretty good one in 2000. Dylan has tended to forget his lines with this song, but this performance is faultless. If you are used to the rock version from the 1994 MTV Unplugged concert, this slower, more gentle yet more deadly acoustic performance might surprise you. Beautifully underpinned by Garnier’s bow-drawn doublebass, the drums picking up a pattering beat when the train pulls out, the understated acoustic guitar work, all add up to a classic performance.
That song leads naturally to ‘Masters of War’, Dylan’s most explicit anti-war song. It locates the villains precisely in the armaments industry, those who ‘fasten the bullets for others to fire’. To fasten a bullet, as I understand it, is to snip it into its cartridge. The phrase, ‘I see through your masks’, also resonates, as in a couple of years Dylan would be seeing through all kinds of masks. Isn’t that what ‘Just Like a Rolling Stone’ is all about, seeing through the masks of snobbery and hypocrisy? ‘It’s All Right Ma’ could well be the great unmasking song of all time.
Over the past few years Dylan has been developing a slow, syncopated, acoustic version of the song. It has an ominous feel at the beginning. The war makers are being called to account. This one has Larry on dobro, twangy and metallic, and some very tasteful guitar work from Charlie and Bob. (Hiroshima concert)
Masters of War (A)
Here’s another performance, a bit harsher with Dylan’s voice up close.
Masters of War (B)
Last but far from least of these Freewheelin’ songs, is ‘Hard Rain’. Lyrically it reached beyond anything else he’d done to that point, but the point is only late 1962, right at the beginning. It went beyond the topical protest of songs like ‘Oxford Town’ in a series of surreal and apocalyptic images. It doesn’t just ‘protest’ about war and racism, it is prophetic and visionary in a spine chilling way. Note that Tony Attwood gives a good account of the song here https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/1550. This is another one from Madison Square Gardens. Dylan slows it down to a gentle movement, and uses his downsinging to great effect. The song seems to suit that style; it has an eerie beauty.
The Times They Are a-Changin’ came out in January, 1964, and the title track immediately became another Dylan anthem. It seemed like a rallying cry, a call for radical change, and a prophesy that that change was a-coming. But we can see now that the song is more about the wheel of time, and the inevitability of eternal recurrence. The song is heavy with the sense of fate, and takes us back to ‘Blowing in the Wind’. How many times…? That wheel just keeps on turning, though, it’s still in spin.
Over the past few years Dylan had been playing it slow and nostalgic, as a crowd pleaser, everybody remembering the old days when the wheel, we thought, was turning in our direction. This performance (sorry, I’ve lost its date) is cast in the same mould, but because of Dylan’s vigorous and provocative vocals, it becomes something more than bitter-sweet nostalgia, and becomes once more, a challenge. In Dylan’s voice I can hear the voice of fate itself taunting us.
Times they are a-changing
None of all this, however, the protest and the flood of imagery unleashed, prepared us for the full-on broadside against the dangerous falsities of the world, and such a full on declaration of alienation from it all. I’m old enough, dear reader, to remember putting this song on the turntable when it first came out. A group of us university students nearly fell off the floor. We’d never heard anything like it. Not even ‘Hard Rain’ could prepare us for this.
It was a protest song to end all protest songs, and in a sense it did. It was the last and greatest protest song, coming in 1964, and we’re just a step away from ‘Desolation Row’.
By 2001 Dylan was putting a busy beat behind the song. I’m not sure how effective that is, but I have no quarrel with the vocals.
It’s all right Ma
The real signing off song had come earlier in 1964, with ‘My Back Pages’. The moral simplicities on which the protest movement was based crumbled away into relativism and complexity. Dylan’s 2001 downsinging is perfect for the self-mockery of the song. The world’s still sick and hungry, tired and torn, but there are other ways to go than hating hatred, and there might be an escape from the paradox of
My Back Pages
See you next time around, as the wheel spins, I’ll be back soon with electric sounds from 2001.