As the first single and opening track off Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), “Blowin’ in the Wind” has become one of the most enduring and well-known tracks in the songwriter’s vast catalogue.
While not a hit upon its initial release, failing to chart at all, the song became one of the defining tracks of the 1960s — an anthem for the cultural revolution that took place among the youth at that time.
Lyrically, “Blowin’ in the Wind” poses a series of rhetorical questions that serve to paint a picture of the state of society in the United States during that period — and still to this day. The peaceful tune suggests that while no single person may have the answers, the answer does exist and it’s as natural as the wind that blows.
Like many of Bob Dylan’s songs, there is a lot that can be said about it. Just as the songwriter has a story, a lot of his songs have taken on stories of their own in the decades since their release. They have not only grown with time, but is some cases have remained as relevant to society, personal growth, and opening one’s perspective to this day as they were when first written.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” Origins
Initially, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a two-verse song containing the first and third verse of the final song. This is what Dylan first performed live in April 1962 at Gerde’s Folk City in NYC. This performance was recorded in its entirety and circulated among his fans, and was later released on a collection of live rarities.
Not long after this recording Dylan added the middle verse, which is included in the the version that was recorded for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Listen to the Gerde’s Folk City NYC recording below.
Bob Dylan – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Live April 1962)
The song’s final lyrics along with Dylan’s comments on the meaning of “Blowin’ in the Wind” were published in the June 1962 issue of Sing Out! magazine. His comments explain his thought process behind the song, and serve as an excellent introduction to the analysis we’re conducting today:
There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars … You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.Bob Dylan on the meaning of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, 1962.
Dylan’s words are filled the hopefulness of youth, but also display a deep wisdom and understanding of human nature and the world. He hopes for world peace, harmony among races, and believes peace is natural way of things, and Mother Nature is trying to tell us.
Musically, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a direct adaptation of the gospel song “No More Auction Block For Me”. The song evolved from the black spiritual tradition and versions of it titled “We Shall Overcome” were popular anthems of the civil rights movement, along with Dylan’s tune of course.
See a nice version of “No More Auction Block For Me” by Odetta below. You can hear the melody that Dylan borrowed from the song.
Odetta – “No More Auction Block For Me”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” Lyrics Meaning
As mentioned earlier, the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” pose a series of rhetorical questions that touch upon important social and political issues, including including war, peace, freedom, equality, and justice.
While many of these questions seem to have no easy answers, or no concrete answers at all, each of them brings to mind lessons and realities that may lead to realizations about the nature of life and the interconnectedness of people. Not to mention, the inevitability of death as a constant for all living things, and even things that are not living.
Let’s dive in and see what Dylan was really saying with this song, starting with the first verse:
How many roads must a man walk downFirst verse to “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must the white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The song begins by questioning what it means to be considered a man in the eyes of society, asking how many roads, or how many challenges must he face before he can be accepted.
Next he questions the white dove — a sign of peace — and asks how long must it fly across the sea before it can rest in the sand. This seems to question how long we must work for peace before it is accepted as a constant.
Then, he addresses war directly, questioning how many times must be shoot cannonballs at each other before we ban war forever.
These questions are complex, but point to the overarching issues within society at the time. Specifically, the civil rights movement and anti-war movements that became the center of cultural focus later in the decade.
We reach the refrain, where Dylan again suggests that the answer is blowing in the wind:
The answer, my friendRefrain to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
Is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
By this he means that the answer is both easy to understand and completely abstract. The wind blows every day, and if we take the time to listen to it, we may find ourselves in a meditative state. In this state, anger and negativity seem to evaporate, and one can feel comfortable.
Perhaps Dylan is suggesting that we look for inner peace, and acceptance of life and its nuances in order to facilitate peace within society and the world at large.
The second verse brings three more questions:
Yes, and how many years can a mountain existSecond verse to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
‘Fore it is washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The first question in this verse observes that even the mighty mountain will succumb to the powers of the sea someday, suggesting both the impermanence of life and the power of nature. It is almost a nihilistic observation.
Then, Dylan seems to directly address the struggle of black Americans in gaining their freedom, as society and the law has found ways to continuously hold them back since the beginning. This is something that is still relevant in society today, and has become a topic of awareness in recent years as more people educate themselves on the country’s dark past.
He then brings into question the people who bear witness to the struggle of anyone and simply turn the other cheek. Rather than passing judgement, he kindly suggests that the man open his eyes to the reality of the world before him, and do his part in bringing about positive change.
Again, Dylan sings in the refrain, the answer is blowing in the wind. He then poses three final questions come in the third verse:
Yes, and how many times must a man look upThird verse to “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The third verse begins with an abstract question about being able to see the sky. It seems obvious that everybody can look up and see the sky, but Dylan may be suggesting that “seeing the sky” means having an open-minded perspective.
Next, he points out that everybody has ears, yet don’t seem to notice the cries of others around them. This is similar to the question posed in the second verse about man turning his head. It’s about compassion for the fellow man and helping those in need.
Finally, he lands upon the image of war and death, questioning when the powers that be will decide that enough is enough, and it is time for the killing to stop. Oddly enough, this brings to mind another popular (but much louder) anti-war song, “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath.
We are left with one final gentle musing about how the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Listen to the studio recording below.
Peter, Paul & Mary Version
While Bob Dylan may not have had initial success with his version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, another popular artist of the time turned it into an international hit — Peter, Paul and Mary. The “Puff The Magic Dragon” singers were shown the song by Albert Grossman, who managed both them and Dylan.
They loved it, and recorded their version in a single take and promptly released it, just three weeks after Dylan’s version hit the airwaves. It peaked at number 2 on the Billboard charts and reached number 13 in the UK.
Despite this, it is Dylan’s original version that is mostly remembered. Listen to Peter, Paul and Mary’s take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” below.
Peter, Paul and Mary – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963)
Other Notable Covers
Of course, being one of the most popular songs by one of the most famous songwriters of all time, “Blowin’ in the Wind” has also been covered by countless artists over the years. We’ve collected below several of our favorites.
Enjoy and let us know if there are any good ones we should add to the list in the comments!
The Staple Singers – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963)
Sam Cooke – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1964)
Stevie Wonder – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1966)
Joan Baez – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Live 1978)
Dolly Parton – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (2005)
Ziggy Marley – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (2011)
Neil Young – “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Live 2013)
An iconic songwriter in his own right, Neil Young has covered “Blowin’ in the Wind” many times throughout his career. The above video comes from Farm Aid 2013.